Drive is a good thriller of its type, and it develops with enough ingenuity that you stay absorbed, even though there is not a chance anything original will come out of it. But that’s why you go to this kind of film; so as not to be surprised. Written and directed by Nicolas Refn, and photographed with elegance by Newton Sigal, it is sharply focused on delivering a particular kind of film experience. You want the same feeling that other films have left you with, the ones that emphasize style and fantasy, but with a grounding in your own world that lets you walk the terrain comfortably.
Crime thrillers are perfect for this because you expect, and are usually given, a lift along with the downer ending. The downer is that the “hero” will definitely not triumph in any material sense. He will not get the money, the girl or the freedom to live free from his past, and often enough he’ll die violently. But the lift is what keeps the genre alive. It usually means a just revenge or the successful sacrifice of the hero for the safety of some innocent person, usually a woman or a child. Jean-Pierre Melville worked this formula memorably. Some recent examples are Johnny To’s Exiled or John Flynn’s underrated City of Industry.
Drive gives you both the woman and the child, and the setup is a little different this time. The hero (always put “anti” before the word) drives cars. That’s it, he just drives , like it’s a bodily function. But he also gets paid for it; as a stunt driver for the movies or tv, and as a getaway driver for heists. Oh, and he is cool. McQueen cool. Only – and this is kind of an inside joke – where Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and Thomas Crown lived like GQ deities, this guy flops in a dump apartment in LA, and his furniture looks picked off the sidewalk.
I know, I know, McQueen was a cop in Bullitt, not a criminal. But when it comes to coolness, it hardly makes a difference. McQueen played his cops and his crooks the same way. The defining thing is being a loner, someone who will not fit in with the wage-slave mediocrities who pay to see movies about cool guys who live by their own code. And besides, Gosling’s physical resemblance to McQueen can’t be accidental.
Anyway, Driver falls hard for the girl, who is a neighbor with a cute little boy. Refn wisely makes the kid just this side of bearable; loveable, but no sitcom wiseass. Mr. Cool would never fall for that. The story is a clever combo of protecting these two after the woman’s husband is killed – after taking the mob’s money in a bungled job – and battling a pair of mobsters who are pretty cool too, only evil. I’m talking 21st century icons of evil, the kind who use razors as rhetorical devices.
The best thing about the film, which will also bring it buzz, is Albert Brooks as the crime boss. Unlike other casting brow-raisers we’ve seen (think Tom Cruise in Magnolia), this one works because Brooks plays the guy pretty much the same as his comic roles. He is chilling when he explains to a longtime friend why he has to kill him – which he does, with icy swiftness, while he is talking – because he sounds exactly like he’s apologizing for having to leave early from his daughter’s birthday party: affectionate and consoling.
Carey Mulligan has been criticized for a lack of chemistry with Gosling. But it’s a nothing role, and she is fine. If she were my neighbor, I’d surely invent some excuse to knock on her door.
Actually, I think Gosling is the real problem. This character is not only violent when he has to be, but is absolutely confident about himself. He reacts instinctively to danger, not cerebrally, and he is never wrong (that final scene notwithstanding). But Gosling doesn’t convince in this. He doesn’t look used by the world, as someone without hope. He still comes across as an assistant principal type, like he thinks it’s all fixed when you talk with the guy over a beer. I sense that Refn saw this and tried to resolve the problem, but not successfully. When Gosling tells Mulligan he’d like to live with her and her son, he is absolutely sincere about it, which denies everything we know about the character. At least Mulligan sees how ridiculous this is, and she gives him a good slap.
Still, Drive satisfies by being true to formula. The ending is abrupt, and at first seems unresolved. But then you remember the film’s title, which tells it all, and it is just right.