Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac
Rated R for Strong Brutal Bloody Violence, Language, and Some Nudity
It's a word that critics throw around whenever a movie looks cool or emulates the "style" of a certain genre. For example, "Sin City" and its sequel are stylish in the sense that they are comic-book film noir in overdrive. But in the case of "Drive," the term isn't just an adjective. It's the focus.
Everything about this movie, from scripting to acting, action to music, direction to flair, and yes, style, is carefully constructed to enhance the film's presentation. The film values mood and tone over everything else, giving it sort of a stream-of-consciousness, dream-like quality. That's what sets it apart from other crime films.
There is a man (Gosling) in Los Angeles who, when behind a wheel, is capable of anything. For the right price, he'll be a getaway driver, but only if you play by his rules. "You give me a time and a place," he says. "I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute on either side of that, you're on your own. I don't sit in while you're running it down. I don't carry a gun. I drive." For the most part, though, he's a mechanic who keeps to himself and occasionally does a stunt driving job for a movie. He grows close to his neighbor down the hall, Irene (Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). But when her husband Standard (Isaac) gets out of prison, he backs off, at least until he finds Benicio having been a witness to his father getting beat up by gangsters over a bad debt. He volunteers to help Standard rob a pawn shop to pay it off, but they are set up. Now he has to do all he can to protect his new friends.
The actors play their parts at just the right note for this picture. Ryan Gosling, never one to play it safe or back down from a challenge (he did, after all, play a Jewish neo-Nazi in "The Believer" early on in his career after starting out on "The Mickey Mouse Club"). His character doesn't say much, but Gosling uses his eyes and body language to create a character who while standoffish, has a rigid set of morals and loyalties. It's riveting work from one of our best actors. Carey Mulligan, also an excellent actress, is very good as a woman who both loves and fears her husband but won't allow herself to fall in love with another man. Yet we understand why the third cog in this strange love triangle would go to such lengths to protect her. Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman shine in their roles as a dim-witted friend of Gosling's character and a dim-witted gangster. The true scene-stealer is Albert Brooks. Known mainly for his neurotic humor (especially in "Finding Nemo"), Brooks plays a truly compelling villain. Bernie Rose is a pragmatic gangster. He likes this whiz kid driver, but he's also looking out for himself.
The line between succeeding at what "Drive" is trying to do and becoming pretentious arthouse trash is a very fine one. Nicholas Winding Refn never crosses it, although once the plot kicks into gear, he proves unable to consistently weave the film's spell. It's not that it misfires, it's just that the dream-like tone dissipates.
"Drive" isn't for everyone, but I think I can safely say that it's at least easy to appreciate.