Drive here is both a verb and a noun. It’s a film with more than its share of horsepower, but it’s also a film about the driven man at its center.
Ryan Gosling stars as an unnamed driver (his lack of a name may remind you of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars; it’s a worthy comparison) who spends his days working in an auto shop and doing car stunts for the movies and his nights as a getaway driver. His clients don’t know his name and he doesn’t know theirs. He arrives where he’s told to go, gives the client five minutes to get in the car, and then gets them out of whatever trouble they just landed in.
Much like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, this film’s visual and spiritual ancestor, things begin to change for the Driver when he meets a woman. Irene (Carey Mulligan) lives down the hall from him with her young son (Kaden Leos). Their paths cross when he drives her home when her car breaks down. A relationship is just beginning to kindle when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of jail and comes back to mend fences with his family. One problem: he’s in debt to a gangster.
To save the family he’s come to care about, the Driver agrees to help Standard pull off a small pawn shop robbery to pay off the debt. But something goes horribly wrong, the robbery turns out to be not so small, and suddenly the Driver finds himself between a helpless woman and her son and a pair of gangsters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks) who are out to get their money back at any cost.
If you’re making a movie called Drive, it’s best if you’re able to do a good car chase. Refn doesn’t make his film about the cars or the major auto stunts, but when they do take center stage he tackles the sequences with elegance, poise and a firm restraint against “shaky cam” action sequences that American directors are so prone to. The action in Drive is controlled, precise and so well-choreographed that the crashes begin to feel like a kind of metallic dance. But here’s the other trick: it never feels like someone’s controlling it.
Refn also manages that all-important crime film balance between violence and humanity. The moments of brutality in this film are swift and resoundingly visceral, but so elegant in their execution that even someone with a weak stomach will stare on with admiration. Refn’s timing is so perfect that you spend the long spans of time between violent moments both shaking and itching for the next hammer to drop. When it hits, there’s a combination of disgust and exhilaration. That’s how on-screen violence should work.
But for all his brilliance, Refn himself can only take this movie so far. His cast is superb throughout, but it’s thoroughly dominated by Gosling and Brooks. As a nameless, often seemingly emotionless man, Gosling once again declares himself as one of the greatest – if not the absolute greatest – actor of his generation. His Driver is played with such an economy of physical expression that it almost feels like he’s doing nothing…until you see his eyes. And as for Brooks, don’t confuse how impressed you are with his work for surprise. Yes, you’ve never seen him in a role like this before, but that’s not why you’re so compelled to watch. This is an actor. This is a bold, savage performance, and that’s why you keep watching.
Drive is easily one of the best films of 2011, but it’s also an uncommonly good – and important – work of American crime cinema. It belongs in the same league as The Departed, No Country for Old Men and David Chase’s The Sopranos. This film goes beyond thrilling and becomes beautiful, and that makes it worthy of true immortality.
Drive is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.