Director Nicolas Winding Refn has spent most of his career crafting delicately paced studies of masculinity that are light on story and heavy on bloody action. His “Bronson” was something of a coming out party for star Tom Hardy, and last year’s “Valhalla Rising” was straight out of an ’80s heavy metal video, dealing with a Norse warrior-slave slaughtering his way through a pre-medieval landscape. However, “Drive” is a step up on every level. It’s a film that is absolutely immersed in style — a masterful exercise in perching an audience firmly on the edge of their seats.
The film’s story practically redefines minimalism, starting with its nameless lead character (Ryan Gosling), referred to only as Driver. Gosling’s character works in a garage run by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a sleazy opportunist with a bum leg and some very shady friends, including Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks). When Driver falls for Irene (Carey Mulligan), a woman down the hall, her deadbeat husband’s (Oscar Isaac) return from prison brings his two worlds crashing together in a big way.
From its very first scene, “Drive” delights in building near-unbearable tension. As Gosling navigates the streets of Los Angeles, avoiding police cars and helicopters, the film’s score takes over in making the audience squirm, each patrol car bringing a whole new wave of suspense into the scene. Even better are the scenes when “Drive” lets this simmering intensity come to a head, often with incredibly bloody results.
Gosling continues to challenge and redefine the big screen persona he’s been carefully building over the last few years, and with his performance in “Drive,” he casts away any and all lingering doubts that he’s nothing more than the pretty boy from “The Notebook.” His character is pure, unshakable control, speaking maybe a page’s worth of dialogue in the entire film, and Gosling turns an inexpressive, stoic hero into one of the year’s most compelling characters.
Refn has stocked the film’s cast with absolute heavyweights, pulling from some of TV’s most acclaimed dramas. Cranston’s Shannon is a light, more relatable twist on the morally ambiguous scumbag he’s been crafting on AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” and Perlman’s character from “Sons of Anarchy” is equal parts vulgar laughs and dangerous machismo.
Meanwhile, Mulligan isn’t given too much to do, but her piercingly sad eyes do most of her work for her. Brooks abandons his comedic persona to give a memorable, unnerving performance as a ruthless criminal.
“Drive” may be a bit too slight to be considered a true masterpiece, but Refn combines arthouse flourishes and Hollywood-style bloodletting with polished ease and makes even the film’s smallest scenes practically drip with sleek, retro style. Not to mention Cliff Martinez’s pulsing, ’80s score, which is practically a character in itself. Every choice “Drive” makes from beginning to end is impeccably calculated for maximum effect, be it the film’s few blood-soaked money shots or the few lines of dialogue Gosling is allowed to speak, and as an exercise in restraint, the film is practically flawless. It’s not to be missed, under any circumstances.