You can compare “Drive” to a lot of other movies. In my interview with its director, Nicolas Winding Refn, he referenced Grimms’ fairy tales. I’ve read star Ryan Gosling refer to it as a violent John Hughes movie. Others have liken it to the poetic yet masculine works of Walter Hill and Michael Mann. All of these comparisons are apt, but what’s great about “Drive” is the way it bears so many obvious inspirations without really feeling like any of them. It is its own unique blend of classical tropes and modern filmmaking.
Gosling stars as a man known only as Driver. He’s not much of a talker but he’s a hell of a wheelman. “You put this kid behind the wheel,” his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) says “and there’s nothing he can’t do.” By day, Driver works for Shannon as a mechanic and occasional stuntman for Hollywood movies. By night, he works as a wheelman for robberies. His spartan, uncomplicated lifestyle is complicated — as the spartan, uncomplicated lifestyles of lonely, brooding action heroes always are — by the introduction of a woman. That would be Driver’s neighbor Irene, played by Carey Mulligan. The two strike up a tentative, flirtatious friendship. Driver clearly has feelings for Irene and for her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). But any possibility of romance is shattered by the return of someone from Irene’s past, and by Driver’s increasingly complicated relationship with Shannon’s shady business associates, Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks).
The plot of “Drive” is as familiar as the films that helped inspired its style and tone. But the execution by Refn, Gosling, and screenwriter Hossein Amini feels fresh. The Driver character himself is particularly intriguing. Introduced as the strong, silent type, he’s soon revealed as a gentle soul with a sweet smile. Later, after his relationships with Irene and Shannon begin to crumble yet another side emerges, one that’s prone to bouts of disturbing violence. It is to Gosling’s credit that he’s convincing in every second, and that he makes all these disparate elements feel like the twisted facets of one believable human being. Driver feels complete, if completely nuts.
The action sequences are fairly nuts, too. As he proved in previous movies like “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising,” Refn is not one to shy away from the more graphic aspects of onscreen violence. Likewise, “Drive” is not for the faint of heart, and I suspect some audiences drawn in by the promise of car chases and romance between Gosling and Mulligan will be shocked and put-off by the amount of blood depicted onscreen. The film’s structure mimics a car repeatedly going from zero to 60 and back to zero again: scenes begin quietly, explode with gunfire, then return to silence. Refn rejects the shaky, hand-held style most popular in contemporary American action pictures for crisp, precise camerawork and editing. When Driver gets into a scrape the film slows down, aping the perspective of a man who remains clear-headed even in the midst of a high-speed chase. When he loses control and his violent urges take over, the film speed ramps back up. “Drive” doesn’t get inside this man’s head much, but it does an impressive job of getting inside his perspective.
With an electronic pop score out of the 1980s, strong chemistry between Gosling and Mulligan, and a bleak but inevitable finale, “Drive” is one moody action film. Or maybe it’s really a romantic drama that’s punctuated by moments of intense, bloody action. Or it’s an underworld morality tale. A fable. Maybe even a very dark comedy. It’s easy to compare “Drive” to other movies, and a lot harder to describe.