Film Review: Drive

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's coolly beautiful action thriller looks like a slick, Hollywood thrill ride, but it's actually a bleakly funny deconstruction of genre movie clichés that will delight some viewers and infuriate others.

At first glance, Nicolas Winding Refn's nameless protagonist (Ryan Gosling) has little to recommend him: He's handsome in a bland, unthreatening way, but that satin baseball jacket with the green-and-gold scorpion design on the back screams "dork," and the everyday art of pleasant small talk seems beyond him—the ratio of uncomfortable silences to words verges on excruciating. It takes a sharp eye to see the seething wariness he's hiding behind a façade of pleasant dullness. No one would ever guess he's in the movie business, a highly paid stunt driver who doubles for glamorous action-movie stars. And no one would ever, ever imagine that he's got a sideline in driving getaway cars or that he's so in demand that professional thieves will pay to play by his rules: He won't carry a gun, he doesn't want to be friends and he's on the clock—no matter what happens on the inside, he won't wait one second past five minutes.

The driver lives alone, in an apartment as anonymous as he strives to be; he has no family and only one friend, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the mechanic for whom he works. But when he falls for Irene (Carey Mulligan), the single mom next door, he falls hard, courting her politely, playing father figure to her little boy and looking out for her with the quiet vigilance of a sheepdog keeping an eye on an especially vulnerable lamb, even after she drops a bombshell called Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) into their fledgling relationship. Standard being her husband, who just got out of jail; she didn't mention him before because, well…she can't seem to explain why, but now that he's out, she's going to try to make things work.

The driver calmly makes nice with Standard, who's understandably suspicious of this guy who's taken such an interest in his wife, and even comes to his aid when it becomes apparent that Standard's out of jail but still reluctantly in thrall to the thug life. The driver takes on a job that's supposed to clear Standard's debts once and for all, but it all goes straight to hell in a burst of violence that leaves no corner of the driver's life unstained.

Refn's debt to movies from Walter Hill's existential noir thriller The Driver (1978) to Michael Mann's limpidly seductive Collateral (2004) is evident, and make no mistake: You're meant to notice. Drive is a glittering toy designed to delight a particular kind of movie lover, one thoroughly steeped in the conventions and tropes of genre movies and enthralled by the way shifting one element of the formula reveals the works clicking away under the skin of mindless entertainment.

Everything about Drive is slightly off: the dialogue ever so faintly stilted, the rundown apartments and brutally bleak streetscapes perfectly worn and faded, the costumes—from the little-girl clip that pins back Irene's hair to that satin jacket—a touch overdetermined, and the supporting players just a hair too perfectly cast. Albert Brooks as a pasty, jovially sadistic Jewish mobster? Perfect! Ron Perlman as his partner, who wants so badly to be a bona-fide mafioso that his cover business is a pizza parlor? Flawless! Christina Hendricks as the trampiest tramp who ever snapped her gum and reapplied her lipstick too often? Unbeatable!

Taken together, it all adds up to a thriller whose thrills are vaguely depressing rather than adrenaline jolts to the gut, utterly fascinating without being visceral. It's a throwback to the kind of ’70s art movie in exploitation drag epitomized by Two-Lane Blacktop, with which it would make a terrific double bill.