Ryan Gosling is: The Driver.
If you have a nameless protagonist, your film is automatically propelled into the realm of 'cool'. And Gosling's almost silent, bad ass hero is most certainly a cool motherfucker. A stunt driver / mechanic by day, and getaway driver for hire by night, Driver's world is lit up when he meets his next door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio. Like all good 'boy meets girl' stories, sparks fly. Irene, though, is married, and her husband Standard (Oscar Issac) is about to get out of prison. Meanwhile, Driver's mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston) has worked out a deal with 'legitimate businessmen' Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) to get his protegee racing at a professional capacity. This isn't going to be a smooth ride, though, and soon feces is hurtling its way towards the industrial strength fan.
Let me preface the following criticisms with the assertion that, in
general, I rather enjoyed Drive. The star of the show is director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has conjured up one of this year's most distinctive films stylistically. Drive is beautifully retro: a film that truly understands the cheesy 80s film it is so clearly paying homage to. Even the credits are rendered in bright pink fonts straight out of the cheesiest decade of 'em all. It's the soundtrack that is particularly electrifying, and used sparingly: the memorable, catchy synth rock only kicks in when it's truly needed. Add to this some stunning cinematography (including masterfully long tracking shots and slow motion), a welcome fondness for silence (a rare film that shows rather than tells when it comes to characters) and some brilliant setpieces. Indeed, the opening sequence is a tour-de-force: a getaway 'chase' where the soundtrack menacingly hums, and the only dialogue is coming from the Driver's police radio. It's a wonderful, tense and spine-tingling introduction. As a standalone scene, it's perhaps the best of recent times.
A quick mention of the cast is also due. Gosling plays it cool, his distinctive Brooklyn accent only apparent on the rare occasions he decides to speak. When he does, the script dictates he be blunt, to the point and monosyllabic where possible. While his 'considered' pauses can drag on a few moments too long, overall he makes for a great enigma of a protagonist. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame is typically wonderful in his portrayal of innocent desperation, although he's somewhat underused. Mulligan, I'm not really sure what to make of. She's a fine actress, no doubt, but the chemistry between her and Gosling is almost non-existent. And in a way that's on purpose. Kudos are due, though, to Christina Hendricks for accepting an unglamorous minor role that is as far from her stylish Mad Men persona as possible. But acting wise Brooks is the star: a man with a strange sense of righteousness, yet one utterly unafraid to get his hands dirty to protect his interests. Ron Perlman seems like a mere caricature next to him, and that's some feat.
However, there's one major flaw that kept bothering me throughout the film: I personally think Drive is extremely hollow. And, yes, that's sort of the
point. This is a distinctively style over substance film. But the plot just
goes through the motions. All the bells & whistles Refn piles on consistently attempt to disguise the fact that this is merely a dumb thriller, with most of the plot beats predictable and formulaic. So while the senses were most certainly hypnotised (and the infrequent bursts of visceral action certainly act as a nice counterpoint to the considered silences), Drive's narrative for me
sort of went beyond merely being shallow to the point when some bits
were just dumb. Stopping and thinking here is a pretty bad idea. Apparently the book it's based on is extremely short, and it shows. Drive is in no rush to get to its final destination. On one hand, this helps lend the film its individual and likable sense of pacing. On the other, one could easily argue it's because the destination isn't worth getting to.
That said, for many lack of substance will be what sets the film apart. Overall, as an
experience, it remains extremely distinctive. I just wouldn't go as far as some
of the critical hyperbole out there: the frequent cries of 'existential thriller' are giving the plot a bit too much credit. Drive has a (mostly) great cast, and
Refn has a unique and engaging sense of pace, place and atmosphere. Yet the formulaic,
overstretched story is the one thing that stops Drive from being
truly great. As is, it's merely a damn good ride. Surely, for many, that will be more than enough.