“Please, officer, will you let me go if I start crying?”
Ryan Gosling plays a quietly charming, crazy bastard in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s alternately hypnotic and unnerving Drive. It’s one of the cinema year’s greatest stylistic triumphs, and further establishes Gosling as one of the bigger talents putting his pretty face in front of cameras for a living.
Gosling plays Driver. We never get his real name, and nobody calls him Driver in the movie. This is simply the name given to him on the cast list.
He’s called Driver because, well, he drives. He drives a lot. During the day, he’s a stunt driver for movies, willing to take insane risks for a quick buck. He also works part-time for auto mechanic friend Shannon (the invaluable Bryan Cranston) fixing cars.
At night, he’ll occasionally take a gig driving for robberies. In an early scene, Driver does just that, evading cops and police helicopters in such a brilliantly sneaky way that he must have prominent placement in every crime lord’s Rolodex.
On top of all this, he’s an aspiring racecar driver, with Shannon as his agent. The two procure a sponsorship from Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a cranky restaurant owner and former movie producer. This film provides Brooks with his best role in years, and arguably the best of his career. You’ve never seen him like this before, and you probably won’t see him like this again.
Driver lives a quiet existence in an apartment building, where single mom and waitress Irene (Carey Mulligan) raises her son while waiting for her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), to return from prison. Irene and Driver strike up a friendly, flirty relationship that includes Driver looking after the little boy. When Standard returns from prison, he senses something may’ve been going on with his wife and the new friend, but he’s a little too tired and beat down to make a big deal about it.
Circumstances lead to Driver getting involved in a pawnshop heist that goes horribly awry. Even more circumstances lead to Driver and Bernie in an unholy showdown that leads to shocking, even over-the-top violence.
Refn and his screenwriter Hossein Amini (working from a book by James Sallis) wisely tell us little about Driver’s background. Knowing too much about the man’s history would kill much of the film’s allure, perhaps even make it a bit routine. There’s plenty of mystery, but it’s easy to deduce that a lot of bad shit went down in his past life based on his ability to cave in a hitman’s head with his shoe.
The film features many stunning set pieces, including a sequence between Driver and Bernie’s cantankerous partner Nino (Ron Perlman) that plays out like the best kind of slasher film. Driver’s choice to wear a stunt mask during this scene had me thinking of Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s original Halloween.
Brooks’ character transformation is a true stunner. When Bernie finds his back up against the wall, a wholly unexpected facet of his personality comes to light. The man who made Lost in America and lent his voice to Finding Nemo proves he’s capable of very frightening things on movie screens.
Gosling is a gifted actor who can keep you rooting for his character, even when that character becomes completely unhinged. His portrayal goes into the soft-spoken psychopath hall of fame alongside Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle.
Refn and Gosling plan to work together again. They have announced Only God Forgives, listed for probable release in 2012.
It will be interesting to see if these two could become something akin to De Niro and Scorsese with their future output. With Drive, the duo is off to a rather incredible start.