Over the last six months so many people whose opinions I value have told me that Drive is a masterpiece that I resolved to rewatch Nicolas Winding Refn’s slice of LA noir to see what I might have missed.
When I first saw Drive in the theater, I absolutely loved parts of it. But even those terrific parts didn’t seem to add up to much.
And after after re-viewing the film? They still don’t.
On the plus side Drive cements my belief that Ryan Gosling is an absolutely great actor and that Windnig Refn, a Danish filmmaker who spent many of his formative years in the U.S., is a cinema craftsman of the first order.
The question is whether Winding Refn has anything of value to say or whether he’ll be content to merely toy with genre conventions.
Among his titles is the gritty Pusher trilogy about the drug underworld in his native Denmark, his disturbing Bronson about a psychotic prison inmate and his Viking mini-epic Valhalla Rising. All reveal a filmmaker obsessed with mayhem, madness, futility and death.
Drive, Winding Refn’s first American feature, begins with a borderline brilliant 10-minute sequence in which our protagonist (Gosling), known only as the Driver, serves as wheelman for a couple of robbers. Displaying uncanny cool while police helicopters and patrol cars try to chase him down, this driver-for-hire outsmarts and outsteers his pursuers.
His day job is as a mechanic at a garage run by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a criminal wannabe who provides the Driver with souped-up getaway vehicles and harbors dreams of running his own NASCAR team with our boy behind the wheel.
These two go to a former movie producer (funnyman Albert Brooks, wonderful in a serious turn as an erudite villain) and his much more thuggish colleague (Ron Perlman) for a loan to buy a stock car. Bad idea.
Meanwhile the Driver has met and fallen for Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, who live in the next apartment. This is a big deal for the few-of-words Driver, a loner with apparently no past and, aside from Shannon, no relationships.
Gosling has maybe 20 lines of dialogue in the film’s first 45 minutes but he’s so good at subtly expressing the character’s inner life that you can’t look at anything else. This guy can act with his fingernails.
Most of the first hour is a very quiet character study and a slowly growing romance. Then Irene’s husband, who’s been in prison, enters the picture and things quickly turn dark. There’s a robbery, a gym bag with $1 million of the mob’s cash and a price on the Driver’s head.
When it becomes clear that Irene and her boy are targets of mob killers, our hero goes on a bloody rampage that finds him negotiating the City of Angels in blood-splattered clothes (ludicrously enough, nobody notices...maybe it’s a West Coast thing).
Drive won Winding Refn top directing honors at Cannes last year. He shows himself masterfully in control of his cast and the tools of filmmaking. In only a few instances — a sappy creek-side respite with Irene and her boy and some really awful musical choices — does he flub up.
But the screenplay by Hossein Amini (from a novel by James Sallis) is really two movies that feel incompatible (lonely guy love story, astonishingly brutal crime yarn). And when it’s all over you realize that for all of Gosling’s fantastic work, he’s selling an utterly improbable character.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.