The new De Niro? It might as well be Ryan Gosling. It's in the eyes. As a professional getaway driver in the ultraviolent new "Drive", Gosling makes a mere shift of the eyeballs telegraph danger in a way that I've only ever seen De Niro do. His character is a man of few words, but the eyes communicate volumes. They don’t look you up and down so much as they fix you. They see right through you, see into your soul to who you really are. They stare. They don't blink until you have fucked off, and then they track you until they are satisfied that you have fucked off properly. There is the play of foreshadow in them, as if they foresee the time when you will meet further on up the road, at which time it will be necessary for him to stomp your head in. This is the kind of part that actors chomp at the bit to play--their Travis Bickle--and Gosling brings the real stuff to it.
Those eyes only soften, the face become boyish, sweet, when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan). A solitary man, he meets this girl and her young son and falls in love. But when her jailbird husband (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, the very skills that allow him to protect her from extorting gangsters from her husband's past—his capacity for ultraviolence--are those that make it impossible for them to be together.
Winding Refn gave us the unforgettable "Bronson", brutal, stylish, and a film in which he gave Tom Hardy his Bickle role. “Drive” is also brutal, stylish...and riveting. If you want something that's gonna have your heart pounding in your ears, your veins humming with adrenaline, check this out. There’s a cracking getaway sequence at the beginning. The Driver has advised the crooks who've contracted with him to be their driver that he will give them exactly five minutes to do the job and get out. A second after that, he walks. Refn Winding ratchets up the tension when one of the thieves fails to materialize from the warehouse as the clock ticks and we can hear police sirens in the distance. Once the chase starts, he puts us in that front seat. We're thinking along with Gosling (and he's always thinking): which way now? He's got his police radio and a ballgame going simultaneously, unflappable, a toothpick in his mouth. He never speaks to his passengers.
A driver-movie/noir homage, "Drive" is derivative as hell. Its subject is a solitary urban criminal professional very much in the mode of Alain Delon in "Le Samourai". You could point to 70s films like Sarafian's "Vanishing Point" and Walter Hill’s “The Driver”. But then film is a magpie art: you take what you find that you love and you create your own thing out of it. The deepest impression stamped on this palimpsest of a picture, though, is "Taxi Driver" (though with the sense of irony quite absent), a strata running through not just the final acts where the Driver as avenging angel metes out ultraviolence, but also in scenes when he's just just getting to know Irene. He has a goofy, vacant, flat affect which puts us in mind of De Niro's coffee-shop date with Cybill Shepherd. And there's a direct "Taxi Driver" connection: Albert Brooks. The role he plays here couldn't be further from the nice, nerdy campaign worker he played in that film. He's blood-chilling here as a real hard-on, whose hardbitten-small-business-owner act lets his prey drop their guard just long enough for him to pounce. He runs a pizza joint as a front with his gangster partner, played by Ron Perlman, whose "Hellboy" mug (there's no other word for that visage) is just as impressive without any prosthesis. There's a shot in which we see that profile in silhouette; the contours of the face itself are poignant.
Winding Refn's handling of spatial relationships in a scene in an elevator makes for a really extraordinary piece of cinema. There are three people on the elevator: the Driver, the girl and a guy the Driver knows to be a gangster who at any moment will draw his gun. All hell is about to break loose, we know. But before it does, the Driver pulls Carey into the corner of the elevator--and into a separate frame--for a slow-motion kiss. As soon as they fall into that separate frame it’s as if the frame separates them from the gangster; so long as they are there it suspends them, in time and space, for as long as the kiss lasts.
And Brian Cranston, wow. I mean to say, who could have predicted that the dad off of "Malcolm In The Middle" would be doing the kind of work he's been doing lately? Here's he's a kind of cut-rate pimp/mentor to the Driver, a small-time exploiter. He owns the garage where the Driver works as a mechanic and he secures him work as a stunt driver for the movies. He's always got some kind of hustle. He wants the gangsters to invest in the kid as a racecar driver. He is a craven, limping, sniveling man who's only ever had one kind of luck: bad. The Driver is either too good-natured or too naïve to know that he’s being pimped, or maybe he just doesn’t care. Cranston is able to invest the character with a kind of tragedy.
Even the small parts are well-observed. Christina Hendricks, almost unrecognizable from "Mad Men", doesn’t have a big part here as a sort of female prop for the gangsters with an agenda of her own, but just in the way she carries herself she conveys what kind of life this character has led, that she's three miles of bad road.
Winding Refn presents this material as metaphysical fact. He is instinctually existential. There's no back story. The Driver just exists, we don't know how. He's just "the Driver," no name. Like life itself, there is no point: it just is, and it just keeps coming, and he takes as it comes.
The violence in "Drive" is cathartic on some elemental level: it triggers something in our lizard brains. The electronic music throbs. If I recall correctly, the theme actually contains lines like, "He's a real hero" or “He’s a real human being.” I might have preferred a bit more irony--I think this guy really is a model of chivalry to Winding Refn--but that absolute lack of distance is precisely the reason his art is so strong. What we get here is direct, unmediated. Still, I can't help but wish him a bit more of a sidelong glance into the abyss in the future. Only then can he leap that gulf that separates a "Death Wish" from a "Taxi Driver".
-- October 5, 2011
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)