Nicolas Winding Refn is a director who understands the impact of violence. So often are we subjected to pornographic deluges of non-stop beatings, stabbings, shootings, and whatever else, that the sheer desensitization of that violence ultimately kills much of its intended impact. Refn has astutely avoided this problem throughout his career, even in films like Bronson, where the central character is practically pure, maliciously brutal id.
In Drive, an adaptation of James Sallis' novel of the same name, Refn shows a deft, almost preternatural control of violence on film. His central character, a nameless getaway driver played by Ryan Gosling, is a seemingly affable, if oddly meek fellow who, when pushed to the brink by forces that invade is otherwise solitary lifestyle, shows a temperament that hops across the border into the realm of the psychotic. But with Refn's measured pacing, Gosling's brilliant performance, and a script that tightly winds up the tension to the point of breaking, Drive manages to conjure up violence so jarring, so impactful, that you practically feel every single bullet, every single crack to the skull yourself.
Before it gets to any of that, however, Refn sets this thing up almost as a sort of fairy tale. The aforementioned driver, a soft-spoken man of sparse interests and an even sparser wardrobe--he wears his trademark Scorpion-emblazoned jacket even in the most absurd of circumstances--is, much like the cars he drives, a machine. By day he stunt drives for films and works in a local garage, run by his mentor, a former gambling addict and driver himself (Bryan Cranston). At night, he moonlights as a getaway driver for any thug with the right kind of cash. His rules are simple: for a previously agreed-upon five minute window, he will sit in a car and wait while you do whatever the hell it is you plan to do. If you arrive after that five minute window, he's gone. If you finish up in time, he's yours until you get away clean.
The cold, calculating precision of that mantra bears more than a bit of resemblance to Robert De Niro's Neil McCauley in Michael Mann's Los Angeles crime classic Heat. Indeed, much of Drive actually bears significant resemblance to the LA-set works of Mann, from the way cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel captures the strip malls, back alleys, and downtown architecture of the city, to the blaring, almost anachronistic use of electro-pop music to punctuate specific scenes, Refn seems to be riffing on Mann in a number of ways, and does so to wonderful effect.
And again, like De Niro in Heat, all that careful behavior is tossed asunder by the introduction of a woman. In this case, it's Carey Mulligan as Irene, a married woman whose husband (a small time crook played by Oscar Isaac) is currently incarcerated. Infatuation between the two develops quickly, but they keep a measured distance for a while, with Gosling acting more as a surrogate father figure to Irene's young son than anything else. Simultaneously, Gosling finds himself in the middle of a deal between Cranston and a movie producer-turned-gangster, played by Albert Brooks. Cranston pitches Brooks on the idea of forming a racing team with Gosling as their primary driver. It's Cranston's big pitch to go legit, and yet he finds himself in the debt of both Brooks, and his Jewish/Italian mob partner (Ron Perlman).
For a while, things seem picturesque and happy. Then Irene's husband comes home, and it all goes to hell.
Getting too far into the circumstances that bring down that hell on everyone's head would spoil a lot of what makes Drive such a surprising treat. You know the rug will be pulled out from under these characters at some point, because no one in a criminal life in a film can ever have things work out exactly the way they want them to. But seeing how Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini yank that rug with such precision, such remarkably jarring timing, it's something that deserves to be seen and experienced firsthand.
What I can say is that this is where the more violent aspects of Drive come into play. Surprisingly, very few of them involve cars. Drive only includes a handful of car chases, but the ones it does include are fantastic, bereft of the sort of shaky cam, CG-heavy nonsense we often find ourselves inundated with these days. They are each distinct, as well. Starting off with a brilliant robbery sequence where the Driver's only goal is evasion, the film then brings a full-bore, engines-revved car sequence that's as naturally shot as it is thrilling. The final chase, which sets up a masterful piece of stealth vehicular homicide, is as satisfying as it is unnerving.
Much of the violence ultimately comes directly at the hands of men. There are an economy of gunshots in Drive, and the few that connect are felt with insane impact. Mostly, the violence is personal, up close. Knives, blunt instruments, other methods that suggest a kind of intimate quality that is all the more horrifying, given the fury on display. Gosling masters this dichotomy of personality. As the quietly angry driver, he is capable of saying much with only a look to another character, a simple, fey smile that speaks volumes more than any words of dialogue. And when he does finally break, resorting to a violent outcome as his last resort, it's like a light switch has been flicked. You realize that rage was always there, waiting for a collision to finally break free.
As good as Gosling is, he is made all the better by the strong supporting cast. Brooks, in particular, is a revelation. Mostly known as a comic actor of a self-effacing quality, Brooks becomes something else entirely here. He's a pleasant enough guy whose nasty streak can be seen flowing in between the breaths of every sentence he utters. You fear him because he's so nice at first. He's disquieting in a way that I doubt anyone ever thought Albert Brooks could be. Perlman, always game for a good character role, has some fun as his nasty mobster partner, whose pitiless mentality is all the more bizarre, given the ramshackle nature of his operation--he runs the whole thing out of a strip mall pizza parlor. Cranston, an actor who is getting no shortage of attention these days, once again kills it in a role that is somewhat meager in terms of screen time, but no less powerful for it. He's a tragic figure given healthy heapings of humanity by the actor portraying him. And though they aren't on-screen a great deal, Issac and Christina Hendricks--who plays a sort of mob floozy that finds herself in a bad position after a job gone wrong--are fantastic with the few scenes they're given.
If there is any weak link--and there aren't many here--it's Mulligan, who is good, but not quite on the level of the rest of the cast. For a character whose life is effectively turned upside down by both the presence of the Driver, and the return of her husband, Mulligan's emotional state seems remarkably calm throughout. The wear of her life is rarely worn on her face, and at times, it feels like a bit of a monotone performance. She has some very good scenes with Gosling, but when it comes time for her to really sell the horror of what's happening to her life, it never quite comes together.
Still, if the worst thing you can say about a movie is that it has one "okay" lead performance among many phenomenal ones, odds are your movie is pretty good. Drive is not merely good, it's great. Truly, definitively great. It solidifies Refn as one of the best, and most creative directors working today, and offers up one of the best dramatic tales of crime in Los Angeles since, well, Michael Mann last made a film about crime in Los Angeles. Simply put, it's one of the best films of the year. See it.