Written by: Hossein Amini
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman
Overly stylish films make their intentions clear with what they want to present to the audience, but the truly great ones bring a story to match it. Drive achieves a strong balance because the style runs at the same wavelength as the dread-inducing and unsettling narrative set before it. The film proves to be unafraid to show the dark impulses of humanity all baking under the bright sun and lights of Los Angeles.
Running as an occasional getaway driver and mechanic as his day job, The Driver (Ryan Gosling) does not say much but gets the job done. One day he interacts with and befriends his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son. With her husband (Oscar Isaac) getting released from prison, The Driver gets involved in trying to help him escape the danger he’s bringing to the family.
So much of the character work in Drive appears directly on the faces of these characters, as they progress through this bloody story. It all stems from the protagonist we follow with words coming at a premium; he does not fit the typical standard for a hero to follow. Sure, he looks like Ryan Gosling and can certainly throw a punch whenever necessary, but something remains off about him. The decision to make The Driver anonymous in name and non-expressive gets right at the heart of what Nicolas Winding Refn wanted to accomplish with this feature and he does so in blistering fashion.
Right away, the film begins by displaying the mantra of The Driver and his exceptional skills. He gives the robbers five minutes to grab what they need and he’ll take care of them, but if they’re a second late from the time parameters, he will leave them for dead. The way he operates the vehicle shows a level of precision and planning that speaks much more than his actual words. It’s the equivalent of watching a concert pianist play a complicated song where not many can achieve that level of excellence. The opening scene establishes the skill The Driver possesses but the rest of the film displays a man seeking connection and trying to protect it at all costs when the going gets rough.
With this performance, Ryan Gosling begins his streak of his subdued but incredibly nuanced performance. He allows for the mood around him and facial movements to do most of the work. Whether it be the anger quelling inside of him or a big smile practically covering his entire face when he interacts with Irene, Gosling does tremendous work with this character. The Driver could have easily been too anonymous for the story’s sake with no connection properly built with the audience, but enough humanity emanates from this performance that it became easy to forget he never actually receives a name. The perpetual calmness presented in this performance allows for the moments where the character rightfully loses his cool to feel incredibly abrupt to the point of it being unsettling to witness. It represents the shattering of a reality and persona The Driver wants to present.
Los Angeles serves as the backdrop of this feature and its presence is made known with how the landscape can change from the busy streets to conditions right outside of the limits. The scenes operating through the night highlight what people adore about the City of Angels and what makes it a breeding ground for dangerous activities to occur. The glamourous layer sits beautifully on the surface but right underneath it shows low-level gangsters willing to beat down individuals over some protection money. No city is perfect and this film shows both sides of it.
Just like with the fits of anger The Driver displays in moments, several sequences shift the mood and pacing of the movie. All of the calm and touching moments The Driver has with Irene and her son set for the story to have its pleasantries and establish what a happy ending could look like for all parties involved but this reality does not come to fruition. Instead, there are moments where certain characters get blasted in the head by a shotgun and another is smashed with a hammer. These unsettling moments of violence underscore the real world the protagonist must operate in and it gets filmed in a skillful manner. A happy ending was never in the cards for The Driver because of the depravity he must contend with and how an easy way out was nothing more than a pipe dream.
Nicolas Winding Refn truly made a name for himself with this film and rightfully so because he finds the balance between style and substance with Drive. Make no mistake about it, the style becomes its defining feature with the jacket The Driver sports being one of the more striking images to remember from watching the movie. Nearly every scene has the director’s fingerprints on it to create a stunning visual landscape for the story to play out. One of his best directorial decisions came in allowing for silence to stay in so many scenes. Particularly, the moments shared between The Driver and Irene show a level of connection not seen anywhere else in the film. They maintain a gaze with each other with their smiles and barely any words coming out of their mouths. It allows the audience to just sit with these two characters and not fret about the words they speak or express how they feel. Everything can be seen in the way they gaze at each other. Brilliant decision here by Winding Refn, as at times the silence stretches beyond what many consider to be comfortable, but he keeps it there for the full impact to make itself clear.
A thoroughly enthralling and visual experience, Drive dazzles in the way it presents its story in such an effective manner without using much dialogue. Instead, it allows for the expressive use of faces and for silence to dominate where dialogue would usually lead much of the narrative. A unique experience, which allows Ryan Gosling to kick off this new style of subdued acting he has quickly mastered.