(No longer in theaters)
Michel Litvak, Marc E. Platt, Gigi Pritzker, Adam Siegel, John Palermo
Sep 16, 2011
September brings the higher trash like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which is every bit as dumb as August’s Conan the Barbarian but awash in neon-lit nightscapes and existential dread, with killings so graphic that you can’t entirely believe what you’re gagging at. (You’ll never have to ask, “Is that person dead?”) The hero (Ryan Gosling) is called “Driver” because that’s what he does, and what he does is what he, you know, is. Driver opens the picture with a monologue that mixes cold facts (“There’s a hundred thousand streets in this city”) with coldly pragmatic edicts to the criminals he carries to and from their high-pressure L.A. heists. (“I give you a five-minute window … Anything happens a minute either side of that, and you’re on your own.”) Driver is an anti-blowhard: taciturn, watchful, holding a matchstick between his teeth the way he holds his emotions in check. But he’s also one of God’s Loneliest Men. He needs someone to love, to risk everything for—to give him a Reason to Drive.
Refn, a Dane, is the sort of man to take Hollywood action movies to the next slick, amoral, and unbelievably vicious level. In Drive’s production notes, he says, “I’m very interested in the dark side of heroism, how that unstoppable drive and righteous adherence to a code above the average person’s can shade into something that is quite psychotic.” Right, the duality—we get it. But Refn doesn’t recoil from that psychosis: He digs its potential for splatter. The murders are what gore freaks call “ultra-wet,” with the camera stationed happily in the middle of crimson showers. Without the extreme violence, Drive would be a lifeless rehash of such self-consciously existential thrillers as Walter Hill’s The Driver and Michael Mann’s Thief instead of, “Oh, shit, oh, God, this is so friggin’ hard-core!”
Give Refn points as a mechanic. He’s deft. In an early heist sequence, Driver uses his knowledge of the urban maze to evade both cruisers and copters, and it’s such a tight, twisty piece of staging that you wait for Driver to show off his genius for geography again. But after that, it’s all exploding heads and slashed throats.
Why would Gosling, a fascinatingly cerebral actor, take a role so far inside his comfort zone? Does he long to strike action-icon poses—to be the new Nic Cage? He’s sane enough to keep the movie from drifting into Cagean camp, but considering where it does go, that’s a hollow victory. Driver’s bare apartment is down the corridor from a pretty young mother (Carey Mulligan) and her lonely little boy, who make Driver’s (and the movie’s) sap rise and lead to some moist domestic montages—until the husband and father (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison and takes back what’s his. But the ex-con is in debt to thugs who threaten to kill his wife and son if he doesn’t commit a robbery, whereupon Driver—who has given up driving—is driven to make one last drive …
People will line up for Drive for a look at some of the hottest actors of the moment—and see little indication of what made them hot. Mulligan brings nothing to her part but drab earnestness, and Christina Hendricks (as a moll) looks as if she wandered onto the wrong set. It’s fun to see Bryan Cranston—closer every week to finding his inner psychopath in Breaking Bad, from which Refn could learn much about mixing extreme violence and moral complexity—gimp it up as Driver’s sweet, luckless mechanic. But the only surprising turn is by Albert Brooks as a shady businessman who plays his cards close to the vest. There’s something magical about this performance: You can taste Brooks’s pleasure in not, for once, having to work so hard to open himself up and be crazily, humiliatingly vulnerable. Now he can relax and stay inside himself and open other people up—with a straight razor.