Racing in the streets

Even with impressive car-chase scenes, well-tuned characters drive this actioner

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

In a way, the title says it all: Drive is about a particularly talented and audacious driver of automobiles, a wily loner who specializes in chauffeuring stunt cars for movies and getaway cars for professional thieves. Spectacular car-chase sequences are, of course, part of the package.

But for all its automotive action, much of which is extraordinary, Drive also pays close attention to its characters. It’s no surprise that there’s suspense in the chase sequences, but there’s a whole other dimension of suspense arising from questions about what drives the movie’s characters toward each other and also into these peculiarly perilous situations.

The film’s enigmatic protagonist, the nameless driver (Ryan Gosling) referred to only as “the Kid,” is first seen as the exceptionally resourceful driver of the getaway car for a nighttime robbery in downtown Los Angeles. Soon we also see him working as a stunt driver for the movies and as an all-purpose employee in an auto shop whose proprietor is a gimpy-legged mechanic and car customizer called Shannon (Bryan Cranston).

Things get a crucial complication when “the Kid” begins to take an apparently protective interest in his neighbor Irene and her young son. Irene (a bleach-blonde Carey Mulligan) is married to Standard (Oscar Isaac), who is in prison when “the Kid” first notices his wife, but who returns home soon after. Meanwhile, Shannon is trying to get a local gangster (a baleful Albert Brooks) to put up the money for a racing car that the Gosling character will drive.

All those characters and their assorted storylines collide via another theft and getaway, this time one that has multiple unforeseen consequences. The second half of Drive descends into some brutally generic violence, but nearly everything else in the film runs slyly against the grain of conventional expectations.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s stop-and-go pacing keeps us alert for unexpected nuances in action sequences and dramatic scenes alike. And the marvels of the mostly wordless interplay between Gosling and Mulligan are a tribute to Refn’s special directorial touch as well as to the actors’ skills.

The extended Europop musical passages layered over some of the early action strike a mildly false note, but the soundtrack as a whole is one of Drive’s distinctive pleasures. The bellowing car engines are there too, of course, but Refn and his sound editors make very effective use of Gosling’s silences, of hesitations and pauses in the action, and of tiny sounds in tense moments.

With its mostly scruffy Los Angeles-area settings, Drive also shines as a foray in So-Cal noir. Like The Lincoln Lawyer from earlier this year, it makes shrewd use of the kinds of Angeleno locations that don’t make it onto postcards and TV shows.