Imagine an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel set in the present day and done up in noir style despite being made in color, and you’ll have some idea of what “Drive,” the alternately solemn and explosive new film from Nicolas Winding Refn (“Valhalla Rising”) is like. It’s a wild ride, though like any such enterprise more notable for excitement than emotional involvement.
Ryan Gosling, in the minimalist mode closer to “Lars and the Real Girl” than “Half Nelson,” “Blue Valentine” or “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” among other pictures, stars as a nameless, laconic, ultra-stoic Hollywood stuntman who supplements his legal income as a hired getaway driver for robbers, with his nighttime gigs arranged by crippled Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the mob-connected owner of the auto-repair shop where he works. His sole attachment is the relationship he develops with his next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). Though Shannon’s mob contact Bernie (Albert Brooks) has agreed to finance the driver’s entry into the racing circuit, he first elects to aid Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac), just released from prison, to rob a pawnshop—a heist he has to perform in order to even the score for some favors done him in the slammer. Naturally the job goes awry, and the driver is left to deal with Standard’s female accomplice Blanche (Christina Hendricks) and with Bernie’s partner Nino (Ron Perlman), who was behind the robbery. The outcome means a lot of death and violence.
“Drive” is exquisitely crafted, with lustrous widescreen visuals by Newton Thomas Sigel that make the many long, static images in the film’s first half, in which Gosling stands nearly motionless, glow with inner light. The film also revels in the action sequences—the races through the city streets near the beginning, a frantic car chase after the botched robbery, and a series of bloody altercations in the last act. But even after the action has kicked in, it pauses dramatically in scenes that ratchet up the tension before cascading forward, like a ramped-up vehicle screeching to a halt and then revving up again, tires squealing. Refn paces the switches masterfully, and he’s abetted at every turn not only by Sigel but by editor Matthew Newman, who skillfully maneuvers his way through them.
Added to the technical expertise is a cast that makes the retro-pulp material sing. Gosling shows perfect control, generating suspense through his almost preternatural quiet, keeping his gestures to a minimum, and posing serenely in one of costume designer Erin Benach’s most striking creations—the white satin jacket with a scorpion on the back that serves as the driver’s uniform of choice. (The mask he dons at the end when embarking on his vendetta against the mob makes for an effectively sinister touch, too.)
But Gosling isn’t working alone. Mulligan’s reticence is more touching than involving, but Brooks is a surprisingly effective choice to play a gangster whose seeming imperturbability can change in an instant, while Perlman and Cranston both sink their teeth into their colorful parts with gusto, leaving shards of scenery in their wake. And Hendricks cuts a properly steamy figure as Standard’s none-too-trustworthy accomplice.
“Drive” winds up as a pleasurable mix of old-time moodiness and new-age excitement, done up with verve by a director of real imagination and featuring a central performance of riveting controlled intensity. It’s a throwback, but one with a stylish new spin.