‘Drive’: Pedal to the metal

September 13, 2011


One of the most buzzed-about movies out of the Cannes Film Festival last spring, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” is a strange mix of outrageous action and surprising stillness. It’s like a cross between “The American” and “Reservoir Dogs.”

When Refn shifts into action mode, the tension can overpower the viewer – it’s that blood-pounding mix of suspense and violence. In between, which is most of the movie, the vibe is much less obvious: quiet, insinuating, without the kind of audience-friendly pointers to let you know what’s going to happen next.

The protean Ryan Gosling plays the Driver, an unnamed character first observed picking up a car from his pal and boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston). In voiceover, we hear his credo: He sells himself for a crucial five minutes and, during those five minutes – when the criminals making a getaway need a skilled wheelman – he’ll be theirs. But if they miss their window, he’s gone.

Which is nearly the case with his first clients – two guys doing something unlawful late at night in some sort of warehouse. All we see is the Driver, pulling up at the appointed spot and time, setting his watch for five minutes and waiting.

The first guy comes running out and dives into the backseat, a ski mask still in place. Just as the Driver’s time is about to expire, the partner sprints to the car as well. But even as the Driver pulls away, he hears on his police scanner that his car has been made and he is almost immediately spotted by the cops.

No problem. It’s all about the skill, the nerve and the knowledge. That he’s able to successfully get away – and the clever way he does it – is why he’s paid the big bucks.

But being a wheelman is only part of his gig. He also works as a movie stunt driver, on jobs set up by Shannon – and, in his spare time, he works as a mechanic in Shannon’s garage. He keeps to himself and that’s it: an almost zen-like existence, punctuated by the occasional high-speed chase.

Driver is the perfect existential hero – the guy who does what he does because he’s good at it and requires no personal entanglements. Why does he do it? How did he get so good at it? Refn isn’t interested in that.

Refn, working from the script by Hosseini Amini adapted from the novel by James Sallis, sets the Driver and Shannon on a course to start racing stock cars, backed by money from a gangster, Bernie (Albert Brooks), and his partner, Nino (Ron Perlman). Bernie seems like a nice enough guy, the smarter half of the team, the one who has both imagination and common sense.

But Refn wants to see what happens when a loner like the Driver suddenly does develop a personal tie: in this case, the single mother Irene (Carey Mulligan), who lives in the apartment next door with her pre-school-aged son. He sees her on the elevator in the apartment building, offers a hand with the groceries, then eventually becomes her steady ride.

He learns that her husband is in jail and has been for a couple of years. But just as the Driver and Irene are starting to get close, the husband is released. And, against his better judgment, the Driver finds himself caught up in the husband’s affairs – in this case, acting as a driver for him on what is supposed to be an easy score at a pawn shop.

When that goes haywire, the Driver discovers that, in fact, he is a loose end in a larger scheme by Bernie and Nino. The Driver and Bernie circle each other until their orbit grows tiny, leading to a final showdown.

There’s no such thing as a clean getaway, as the film’s tagline puts it. Refn creates a sense of inevitability about the action, as the Driver finds that he’s pulled a loose thread that threatens to unravel his whole life.

As noted, “Drive” has a quiet, almost European feel to it – the sense that the silences and the moments of waiting are as important and revealing as the action is. Gosling shows once again why he’s one of our finest young actors. He makes the Driver a meditative guy but not a shy one. When his personal space is violated, he can erupt – as he does at a diner when a former client makes the mistake of recognizing him and trying to reminisce about old times.

The film’s most daring surprise, however, is Albert Brooks, one of our true (but truly underappreciated) comic geniuses. Here he plays a smooth and quietly dangerous man whose explosive temper is that much more scary because Brooks seems like such an unlikely brute. Put it this way: If you ever have dinner, you’ll want to keep the silverware away from him.

“Drive” is a movie that lulls you into complacency with its artful sense of creating a quietly moody feeling just before someone gets stabbed in the eye with a fork. Its violence is graphic and painful – but its story is compelling and skillfully told. It’s one of the year’s most intriguing films.

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