By Alec Calder Johnsson
Ever since the riveting thrills of Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), Hollywood has had an obsession—perhaps an unhealthy one—with the automobile. Its potential for commercialism and the effortless provision of an adrenaline rush promised by the “car chase” have made it an obligatory fixture in American cinema. Drive takes a wry, even cynical, approach to this trend.
Made by an outsider (Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who won this year’s Best Director Prize at Cannes), Drive has Ryan Gosling playing an anonymous stunt driver who does movie shoots by day and dubious getaway jobs by night. Dancing on the thin and wobbly tightrope between fantasy and reality, the driver tries to sustain a cool detachment from the crime world that he inhabits, making a point of not being involved in his passengers’ lives for any more than five minutes. Like the viewer of the average Hollywood nihilistic action flick, the driver is a spectator trying to skirt around the truth that he is also an accomplice.
Drive, above all else, is a masterpiece of atmosphere. The setting of Los Angeles, and Cliff Martinez’ score and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography has the mood perfect. Drive’s automotive pursuits—sparse yet integral to the story, with the same gravitas as the boxing scenes in Raging Bull (1980)—are not grounded in kinetic energy and speed, but in competence and finesse.
Gosling’s driver might as well have Ph.D.s in the urban landscape of southern California and in the mechanisms and nuances of the archetypal car, for it is this knowledge that gives him the edge against his perpetrators, not just how hard he presses the accelerator and how much his tires screech.
The firm placement of Drive in the grit of reality permits Refn and Oscar-nominated Iranian screenwriter Hossein Amini (here adapting a James Sallis novel) to make the fantasy of innocence a key theme. Gosling does a tremendous job of channeling Steve McQueen; his driver is reserved but not cold, confident and tough but not conceited, distant but never neutral.
Stepping out of his comfort zone, he develops a close bond with his similarly quiet next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (newcomer Kaden Leos). When the husband/father Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison, he uses the driver for a robbery that he needs to commit to brown-nose a protection racket and keep Irene and Benicio out of harm’s way.
This time, the driver is too involved with the family to escape culpability, and when the job goes horribly wrong, he finds himself fighting for his and the family’s life against Jewish mob god Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks). There’s a brilliant scene in which Standard describes to Benicio the dubious circumstances under which his parents met; here, we come to a slow realization that even the kid has thrown off the yoke of innocence faster than the driver.
As is traditional for neo-noirs, Drive reveals its shortcomings in its moments of pathos. A montage-to-music in which the driver, Irene and Benicio have a bonding moment while fishing in a pond is hackneyed to the extent that it is touching.
And it cannot be ignored that the film repeats the most overused final shot in cinema’s history; if you know the main motif, you know what shot I’m talking about. What the film lacks in genuine emotion, though, it more than makes up for in tone and performances.
Though all of the actors are sublime, particular attention must be given to Brooks, whose antagonist is a textbook example of casting against type. Perhaps it is easier to do drama rather than comedy, and to play the hero rather than the villain, yet Brooks remains fascinating: Rose is a brooding, humorless and vicious sociopath, chilling though he may carry the stature and wardrobe of a jaded Floridian retiree.
He is the movie’s best chance at an Oscar nod. Yet, if his Cannes buzz tapers away (which I don’t think it will), then at least we can fondly remember Drive as a reminder of how truly stupid most of Hollywood is.