CANNES REVIEW: Ryan Gosling Owns the Road in Drive
As we critics settled into our seats before last evening's screening of Drive, the big topic of conversation was -- what else? -- Lars von Trier's exile from Cannes after his sort-of but not-quite pro-Hitler remarks at Wednesday's Melancholia press conference. The consensus was that festival officials had gone overboard, turning Von Trier into a martyr when really, he's just a socially awkward guy who was trying to stir up some controversy with a few ill-considered, ill-advised jokes. The whole event is unfortunate from top to bottom, especially considering that Von Trier has just presented a strong film that has surely lost any chance of winning the Palme d'Or. But there we were, gearing up to watch a movie made by another -- although very different -- Danish-born filmmaker, Nicolas Winding Refn.
Drive is the most commercial picture in competition at the festival, and not just because it features medium- to big-name actors (Carey Mulligan, Ryan Gosling), but also because it mines a specific grindhouse genre: Existential driving movies of the '70s like Vanishing Point, The Driver and Two-Lane Blacktop. These types of movies are near and dear to my heart: I love watching good stunt-driving shot cleanly, but I also love the long, potentially boring stretches that fixate on the glorious averageness of the American landscape, and the way driving can be a sort of Zen activity.
Drive not only met my hopes; it charged way over the speed limit, partly because it's an unapologetically commercial picture that defies all the current trends in mainstream action filmmaking. The driving sequences are shot and edited with a surgeon's clarity and precision -- Refn (best known Stateside for Bronson and the Pusher trilogy) doesn't chop up the action to fool us into thinking it's more exciting than it is. This is such a simple thing. Is it really reason enough to fall in love with a movie? Considering how sick I am of railing against the visual clutter in so many contemporary action movies -- even some that are very enjoyable are not particularly well-made -- I think it is.
There's also the fact that Drive -- which screenwriter Hossein Amini adapted from James Sallis' novel of the same name -- doesn't skimp on human interest at the expense of its considerable (and considerably violent) thrills. Gosling stars as Driver, a laconic man of action whose very name doubles as a job description. By day, he's a movie stunt driver and car mechanic. He moonlights as a wheelman, and as the movie's dazzling, bracingly straightforward opening sequence proves, he's one of the best. Driver's preternatural sense of calm behind the wheel -- a toothpick perches delicately between his lips -- is a little like Fred Astaire's dancing: He makes it look like it's nothing.
When he's not driving, Driver has a crush on a neighbor in his apartment building, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a for-now single mom with a young son. Just as their romance starts to heat up -- and after Driver has bonded with Irene's young son, beginning with a captivating, exceedingly dry exchange that begins, "Wanna toothpick?" -- Irene's husband, Standard Guzman (Oscar Isaac) is sprung from jail. He may be free, but he's not out of trouble. And when Standard's thuggish "pals" threaten his family, Driver takes a job just to help him out.
If you're thinking Driver is the quintessential laid-back selfless hero, cool as cool can be in the Steve McQueen mode, the kind of guy you've seen hundreds of times in good movies and in bad ones -- you're right. In fact, if you've watched any movies made in the past 40 years, you'll see and hear lots of familiar elements in Drive: The slightly grainy, low-lit look of '70s cheapies (the DP is Newton Thomas Sigel); the new-wave neon-pink script used in the credit sequences; the at-first jarring but later sublimely perfect '80s-style synth score. I've already talked to some critics who have dismissed the film, saying they've seen it all before. But that's precisely the point. Refn doesn't pretend to have invented any of this stuff; his movie is 90 percent unapologetic homage, and he knows how to recombine familiar elements in a way that feels fresh and exciting.
Refn has a knack for both violence and romance: The love scenes between Mulligan and Gosling are casual and sweetly unassuming. There's lots of brutality in Drive, and while it isn't always discreet, it's not assaultive, either. (Refn isn't a slavish Tarantino imitator, but it's clear they share certain tastes in terms of references and tone.)
And Refn uses his actors well. Gosling, in particular, is a joy to watch. He walks the tightrope between being minimalist and mannered. His Driver is all about sharp reflexes and meaningful eye contact, and he has a jazz musician's ear for language -- he knows everything cooler when it's just a hair behind the beat. Even the movie's simple costuming is pure genius: Driver's signature garment is a satin baseball jacket with an abstract scorpion stenciled on the back.
Drive could have been the best drive-in feature of 1975, which explains why some of the critics I've talked to don't see it as particularly original. But last night I also ran into a solid crew of youngish colleagues who were as over the moon about it as I was. No one is claiming Refn has invented a new language; it's just that he uses the vocabulary so well -- he's got the right tools and the right touch. This is a mechanic who can make an engine sing.