Brutal men in desperate situations are Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Bronson, the Pusher Trilogy, Valhalla Rising) stock and trade, a preoccupation that continues with Drive, the story of a nameless Hollywood stuntman and auto-mechanic (Ryan Gosling) who spends his evenings working as a wheelman for heists set up by boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Like many of Refn’s prior protagonists, Gosling’s Driver is a lone wolf with a volatile streak, though in this case, he’s less an embodiment of barely contained masculine rage than a neo-noir cool customer (toothpick in mouth, puffy silver jacket embroidered with a giant red scorpion on its back) in the mold of Alain Delon’s Le Samouraï crook or James Caan’s titular Thief. Driven by rigorous ritual and code of conduct – in this case, an intro speech to cohorts that lays out his professional ground rules, and solitary honing of his trade (as when he’s spied cleaning and perfecting car mechanisms) – Driver maintains control, stability and safety via diligent adherence to procedure, and by remaining a figure hidden from the spotlight. That notion of exposure/concealment is repeatedly visualized by Refn (who won best directing honors at Cannes 2011) through canny use of light and shadow as well as clear/obscuring framing, never more so than in Driver’s repeated use of a latex mask, as well as a shot in which, after committing murders that will unavoidably endanger him, Gosling’s well-lit, close-up face slowly recedes until it disappears behind a doorway’s corner.
Driver’s attempts to preserve anonymity and security amidst scenarios that render him visible and vulnerable to enemies meshes nicely with Drive’s guiding noir belief in the tragedy that comes from trying to be someone you’re not by behaving in ways contrary to one’s guiding principles. In this case, that ill-advised course alteration comes courtesy of Driver’s relationship with neighbor Irene (Carrie Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), strangers with whom Driver becomes so enamored that, when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns home from jail and finds himself in debt to murderous thugs threatening to kill his family lest he pull off a robbery, Driver – to protect Irene and Benicio – throws his assistance Standard’s way. Predictably, things go awry, putting Driver in deep, dark trouble with Bernie (Albert Brooks), a crime boss who’s backing Driver and Shannon’s race car-driving dreams, and Bernie’s more sadistic partner Nino (Ron Perlman). That this chaos all hinges on Driver and Irene’s feelings for one another is Drive’s weak link, since the bland Mulligan is an unconvincing encapsulation of Driver’s dreams of noble nuclear-family stability and escape. It’s not a fatal flaw, however, as Gosling’s systematically reserved cool rarely seems like a pose, with the actor layering both sincere compassion and amoral savagery beneath his façade of good-natured detachment.
While Refn’s auto-chase sequences could use a bit more visceral punch, his stewardship is as precise and magnetic as Gosling’s performance. From hot-pink script titles to Cliff Martinez’ pulsating tonal synth-pop score (as well as tunes by Kavinsky, Chromatics and College), Refn evokes the ‘80s as a means of linking his material with Thief, To Live and Die in L.A., and likeminded era-specific neo-noirs, a mood enhanced by the director’s typically assured, expertly composed widescreen. Downtown Los Angeles glitters like a diamond in Refn’s loving gaze, while shot-reverse-shot conversational sequences routinely create dynamic friction from the relative placement of characters on either side of the screen, bestowing Drive with an aesthetic grace and subtlety that’s married to slow-motion imagery of mayhem (a flipping car, say) or – as in a gorgeously wrought elevator sequence – of the marriage between love and violence. When complemented by his period embellishments, Refn’s self-conscious formalism can occasionally make the proceedings’ fatalistic mood and stoic performances seem a tad affected. Yet the potent humanity found in the performances of Gosling, Cranston, and Brooks – who warps his typically nebbish, complaining persona into something unsettlingly sinister – is the soulful antidote to the film’s retro-chic stylization, lending evocative heat and despondence to this tale of a man who, faced with a critical fork in the road, discovers that both paths inevitably lead only to doom.