Shiny, sleek, slickly compelling, and sickeningly suspenseful, Drive is a pulse-pounding, heart-racing machine. Imperturbable yet tautly paced at the breakneck tempo of the getaway cars, Drive is frankly commercial and sneakily artistic, smart, sophisticated, and peerlessly stylish. Low-key, beautifully crafted, and shamelessly entertaining, it’s a hyperactive love letter to road rage that unnerves us with its idling quiet, then pins our ears back when it stomps the accelerator.
The Driver (Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine) is a stunt driver who hires himself out to robbery teams as a short-lived accomplice. With a few half-conversations, he becomes interested in the girl next door (Carey Mulligan, Oscar-nominee for An Education), who, with her adorable little boy, lets the Driver flirt and seduce her, and – yes – drive them around LA to the pulsating beats of an utterly haunting soundtrack. When her husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), returns from prison, the Driver agrees to help him with “one last job” that will get him out of debt to the gangsters threatening his family.
The straightforward pawnshop robbery in the San Fernando Valley goes far off the rails, and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), and Ron Perlman provide brief and explosive roles as the pawns, friends, and accomplices caught in the crossfire between the Driver and an unforgettably sinister crime boss (Albert Brooks).
These character sketches are given heft and dimension by a superb cast led by Gosling. Few actors working today could make emotional sense of such a protean character, but Gosling does so with calm authority. He’s a formidable presence, mysterious, compelling, doing more with a subtle glance than most can do with a pounding pulpit.
The Danish director behind the camera handles things like the Canadian guy behind the wheel – with a mixture of cold calculation and cool aplomb. Cannes Best Director winner Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) has a kind of daredevil control, swerving dangerously with undeniable verve and momentum, never shying away from downplayed bleakness and hyperbolic bloodshed.
Drive is “neon-noir”: the mood is dark, the performances nuanced, the story unnervingly exciting. If Sofia Coppola and Quentin Tarantino collaborated on a genre action movie, the results might look something like Drive. The abrupt shifts between ultra-violent fatalism and white-knight romanticism might give some audiences whiplash, but it’s such a smooth, good-looking ride, most will put up with the soreness.
Charging over the speed limit, Drive is an unapologetically commercial picture that defies mainstream trends in its methodical, relentless pursuit of the finish line. As pure a version of the essentials as you’re likely to see, it’s a menacing piece of nasty business that races around a B-movie track on the dizzying fuel of hard-edged brilliance and undiluted creativity. It’s little more than an exercise in style, but the style is dazzling. One could almost call it European.