Film Review: Drive blends genres in a smart, cerebral thrill ride

A strange cocktail of neo-noir, spaghetti Western, heist thriller and romance, Drive is sure to become the next classic art house action film.

Drive opens with a brief introduction to Ryan Gosling’s unnamed character – known only as “Driver” in the end credits – and his declaration of rules for moonlighting as a freelance heist driver. It doesn’t take long to notice Driver’s solitary nature; in fact, his power springs from this very reticence. He asks no questions, carries no gun, and doesn’t participate in the robberies – he just drives. And he does a damn good job at it.

Driver’s lack of speech, symbolic white scorpion-emblazoned jacket and constant use of toothpicks are reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, while his empathetic nature reflects that of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle.

After picking up two robbers, bags of stolen loot in hand, Driver shows off his prowess as he expertly maneuvers through the dark, neon light-stained streets of Los Angeles, Ca., playing a vehicular hide-and-seek game with LA’s finest while listening to the Clippers game on the radio, which appears irrelevant at the moment.

By outsmarting the police with a few tactics – his best being a last-second headlamp cut-and-park job right before a patrol car’s spotlight flashes in his direction – Driver is able to pull off the getaway with a little help from radio basketball game commentary. Intelligently underplayed, this opening scene is filled with white-knuckled suspense.

The mood quickly changes, however, from fast-paced ferocity to a mellow coolness. Director Nicolas Winding Refn indulges in ‘80s electro-pop nostalgia without warning, flashing hot pink tiling on the screen and accompanying it with Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,” a heavy synth-laden throb of a track that foreshadows the film’s impending surreal grandeur.

Driver balances his nighttime heist getaways with his daytime stunt-driving and body garage work, both of which are made available by Shannon – Bryan Cranston from “Breaking Bad” – an aging small-time schemer who helps Driver with everything car-related. Shannon strikes a deal with two rather intimidating members of the Jewish mob, Bernie (Albert Brooks, in what may be called a comeback role) and Nino (Ron Perlman) to invest in a stock car for his protégé’s hopeful career in racing.

Meanwhile Driver develops a mutual infatuation with his married neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband (Oscar Isaac) is about to be released from jail.

Refn intelligently builds tension between the abstinently flirtatious neighbors, who use everything but words to seduce one another in a cerebral fashion. The attraction is seamlessly woven into a complex heist gone wrong and, whether they wanted in or not, everyone’s involved, including a hapless moll played by Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men.”

The film’s best scene, which takes place in an elevator, arises in a totally unexpected fashion. Refn slows down time and changes the lighting to portray one emotional extreme of Driver – his love for Irene – before reverting to the previous mise-en-scène and exposing Driver’s other extreme: his hate for those who harm that love. This is one of the most viciously beautiful scenes to have graced mainstream theater screens in the past 10 years.

All in all, Drive is an unbalanced filmic paradox, simultaneously being distinctly original and subtly clichéd. Iconic style and laconic speech combine to deliver “a real human being, and a real hero,” as the eponymous lyrics of the College-produced title track, “A Real Hero” suggest.


4 1/2 out of 5 stars

The author recommends:

Bullitt (1968, Director Peter Yates)

Taxi Driver (1976, Director Martin Scorsese)

Mesrine: Killer Instinct/Public Enemy No. 1 (both 2008, Director Jean-François Richet)