He has no friends, no past, no name. “I drive,” he says. He does. Opening with its coolest set-piece – a brilliantly constructed stop/start getaway sequence – Driveimmediately shows us how. Danish hotshot Nicolas Winding Refn joins forces with Ryan Gosling to take a classic American fairytale – a girl, a hero, a dark lord, cars, guns, dirty money – and give it a gleaming Euro-cool chassis.
Just as director Refn streamlines his movie for pure vibe, Gosling stylises his own performance to the brink of absurdity and makes it mesmerising. He’s a Hollywood stunt racer who moonlights as a getaway driver (or is it the other way round?), wearing a strange half-smile and a scorpion-embossed satin jacket.
The first half is a gentle, almost wordless love story between Gosling and sweet mum Carey Mulligan. She’s lovely as the innocent pixie princess in a role that’s hardly there. He gazes at her; we gaze at him.
Mulligan summarised shooting Driveas “staring longingly at Ryan Gosling for hours each day”. We get it. He doesn’t even need to take his shirt off to make us swoon this time. But Gosling’s soft-eyed mystery-man is so reticent, it almost makes you wonder if he’s right in the head. Turns out, he’s not.
As Mulligan’s jailbird husband (Oscar Isaac) brings ruthless gangsters crashing into their world, Gosling’s chivalrous heroism is suddenly revealed as unblinking psychosis. Gosling’s ‘Driver’ is the most modern descendant of Jean-Pierre Melville’s loner-noir Le Samouraï.
It seems odd that the lean screenplay (adapted from James Sallis’ 2005 pulp novel) was written by Hossein Amini, best known for The Wings Of The Dove. Odd, until you discover Amini’s next script is Keanu Reeves’ feudal Japanese adventure 47 Ronin. And indeed, Driveshifts like a samurai movie, Refn constantly feathering the accelerator pedal for maximum tension.
Clocked to the melancholy pulse of Cliff Martinez’s terrific techno-pop score, the cool rhythm is detonated by sudden, shocking eruptions of violence.
If the romance is chaste, the action is not.Two more awesome set-pieces – a breakneck road battle and a slo-mo motel shootout – will snatch your breath. That first smack of a leather driving glove on a woman’s face is a stinger. Then one character’s head explodes at the end of a shotgun and it’s open season.
Gosling impales someone with a shower rail, goes for some DIY dentistry with a hammer, then stomps clean through a skull. Nicely underplaying against Gosling’s curious avenger are a support cast borrowed from knockout TV shows.
Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is suitably crumpled as Gosling’s fatherly boss. Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks is impractically squeezed into jeans and stilettos as a throwaway moll named Blanche. And Sons Of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman chomps scenery as a Jewish gangster.
Best of all, though, comedian Albert Brooks amps the menace as Perlman’s sinister boss. Yep, that’s Marlin the clownfish from Finding Nemo who just stabbed someone in the eye with a fork. “I used to make movies in the ’80s,” says Brooks’ Bernie Rose. “Action films, sexy stuff — one critic called them European.” Nods to Michael Mann, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Ryan O’Neal are all there.
There’s also shared DNA with English director John Boorman’s US debut Point Blank(1967), an art-noir masterpiece about a reluctant heist gone wrong. It stars Lee Marvin as a man named ‘Walker’, who barely speaks and glows with the promise of brutal violence to transform a seemingly simple story into an existential quest for meaning.
For all the parallels, PBhas Marvin’s melancholy to anchor its cerebral stylistics. Can we say the same about Gosling’s unknowable – but ridiculously charismatic – iceman with a warm heart? Does TF’s movie of 2011 really have a point? Maybe that is the point. Truth be told, Drive doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go with Gosling.
In the final third, it has no more set-pieces, no psychology for him and pretty much forgets about Mulligan completely in this male world of machismo and violence. There are no emotions here, just moods. It’s the best-looking B-movie you’ve ever seen, with Bryan Singer’s regular DoP Newton Thomas Sigel shooting LA for neon-noir ambience.
So, what’s really under the hood? Refn has suggested that his American debut is both a fairytale and – really brilliant, this – an ultraviolent remake of Sixteen Candles.
Stripped down for pure style, Drivehas a retro-mythic mojo quite unlike any other film of recent time. And frankly, that’s more than enough for us.
Funnily enough, playing a man with no name, no friends, no past but loads of simmering aggression just made Ryan Gosling the hottest name in Hollywood with a lot of fans and a big future.
Extras are as stripped down as the film – a Q&A with Refn and two galleries tracking the evolution of the film’s poster.