As stripped down and propulsive as its robotic title, Drive is the most "American" movie yet by Danish genre director Nicolas Winding Refn. The film, for which Refn was named best director last May in Cannes, is a sleek, tense piece of work that, as a vehicle for Ryan Gosling, has a kind of daredevil control, swerving the actor dangerously close to and abruptly away from self-parody.
The plot could nearly be inscribed on the head of a pin: A chivalrous loner participates in an armed robbery to help the woman he loves; the deal turns out to be a setup, and the body count explodes. As amply demonstrated by the Pusher trilogy (1996-2005) and Bronson (2008), Refn is primarily a stylist, and this tale of a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a hired wheel man (or is it vice versa?) and gets played for a patsy is a lovingly assembled, streamlined pastiche of '80s movies and television. The most obvious reference is Walter Hill's schematic action flick The Driver: This 1978 paean to professional cool in the person of Ryan O'Neal more or less provides Drive's title, premise, uninflected antihero, and straightforward existentialism, as well as its two-dimensional-period attitude.
Drive is nominally set in the present day, but the 40-year-old director elects to emphasize the retro — or rather, to evoke the period of his adolescence, synthesizing Miami Vice's languid dissolves and neon-lined dive bars, Blade Runner's nocturnal skylines and floating overhead angles, and Top Gun's slow dollies and MTV-friendly lyrical montage interludes. Time stands still! The action is set to a near-subliminal LinnDrum, and the soundtrack is awash in mournful, exalted, romantic techno-pop. (In his interviews, Refn has suggested that Drive's programmatically chaste love story between Gosling's no-name character and Carey Mulligan's single mom Irene is an eccentric remake of his personal teenage favorite, Sixteen Candles.) The shabby apartment house where Gosling's "driver" lives down the hall from the depressed yet sparkly Irene might be the Deep River apartment that serves as Isabella Rossellini's lair in Blue Velvet, and the secondary casting has a definite '80s flavor. Reagan-era TV's noblest monster, Ron Perlman, appears as the movie's crassest villain, while Albert Brooks, the period's most significant comic director, plays a murderous, money-lending ex-producer. "I used to make movies in the '80s," he tells the nonreactive Gosling, whom he is looking to hire as his driver, "action films, sexy stuff — one critic called them European." (Brooks delivers this monologue so well it seems as if he wrote it.)
Doling out his lines in an adenoidal whisper, Gosling is an understated hero in the Eastwood-McQueen tradition — almost ridiculously so: His trademark toothpick is a minimalist equivalent of the raunchy cheroot Eastwood gnaws in his spaghetti Westerns. Gosling's performance is totally reactive: Whatever the provocation, he waits a beat to respond. His silence (and friendly if fixed Mona Lisa smirk) trumps everyone else's bravado. (Compared with Gosling's near-catatonic driver, Mulligan's shiny-eyed pixie is all manic overemotionalizing, as if one of the androids in Blade Runner had been retooled for perk appeal.) Weirdly agreeable, Gosling's driver sincerely enjoys watching TV with Irene's adorable kid and is willing to undertake a dangerous job gratis to help her husband (smoldering Oscar Isaac), newly returned from the slammer. The heist is the hinge. Let the mayhem begin.
It's one of Drive's jokes that, over the course of the movie, Gosling's spiffy silver jacket (emblazoned with a totemic scorpion on the back) will become increasingly bloodstained. Refn's most obvious break with the airbrushed '80s, and clearest link to his own early films, is the ultraviolent, even gruesome, splatter. (Mad Men's Christina Hendricks perambulates onto the scene just long enough to get her head blown off.) The Gosling character is not only a master of high-speed bumper cars but also, when riled, a near-lunatic killer who, as up close and personal as the protagonist of Refn's Bronson, uses a hammer, some steel-tipped footwear, and his bare hands to take care of business.
Both times I've seen Drive, audiences were audibly amused by Gosling's outbursts. The violence is laughable not so much because it is excessive but because it so thoroughly pulverizes the driver's otherwise dent-proof façade. The gag even works twice (as does the movie). Refn's protag attacks one baddie in a dressing room full of soigné strippers and stomps another to a pulp only minutes after the shy proposal he offers Irene. Gosling has the timing to carry it off, but the professional here is Refn. This grind-house risibility is totally strategic — at once counterpoint to the movie's old-school suspense and an antidote to its out-front sentimentality. Basically, Drive is a song of courtly love and devotion among the automatons. It's a machine, but it works.