REVIEW: Ryan Gosling Is the Goslingest in Superb, '70s-Inflected Drive
Some actors are chameleons, shifting drastically from one color to another depending on the role. Ryan Gosling may not be one of them: There will always be a little Ryan Gosling, even just a mischievous glimmer, in any character the actor plays. But then, that's part of what makes a movie star a movie star: It's impossible to separate Cary Grant from his Cary Grantness, or to think of Bette Davis without seeing an enormous pair of eyes framed by mascara fringe.
Though Gosling is still young, he's at his Goslingest in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, playing a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman. Drive is a vibrant and meticulous piece of filmmaking, an homage to existential driving movies of the '70s like Richard C. Sarafian's Vanishing Point and Walter Hill's The Driver. Refn -- the Danish-born director who may be best known for his Pusher trilogy -- understands the heart of his hero, a maestro who coaxes music from the gas pedal. The action sequences serve the conception of the character, not the other way around, an important distinction to be made in a time where there's an undistinguished action movie being released almost every week. (The screenplay is by Hossein Amini, from James Sallis's novel.) Drive has a pulse, a soul and a style -- three elements that don't always come together in contemporary entertainment -- and they're all channeled though the conduit known as Gosling.
We know Gosling's character only 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. By night he acts as a chauffeur for bandits and baddies, and his 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. Driver involves himself in his employers' activities only tangentially and only for the amount of time it takes him to shuffle them from here to there. After that, they're on their own -- in the movie's taut and exquisite opening sequence, he ends a tense chase by slipping off on foot into the night, an everyman being absorbed into an anonymous crowd as if he were a minnow rejoining his school.
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 her kid, 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, not realizing that the real danger at hand involves Albert Brooks' two-bit crime boss and his overgrown, velour-sweatsuit-wearing sidekick, played by Ron Perlman.
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 Siegel); the new-wave neon-pink script used in the credit sequences; the at-first jarring but later sublimely perfect '80s-style synth score. Refn doesn't pretend to have invented any of this stuff. His movie is 90 percent unapologetic referencing, 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 Gosling isn't lost amid the movie's violence, which sometimes happens to actors unaccustomed to playing action roles. Instead, the picture's brutality seems to be a quivering compass arrow for him -- he follows it to find the heart of his character, walking the line between being minimalist and mannered. Gosling's Driver is all about sharp reflexes and meaningful eye contact, and he has a jazz musician's ear for language -- he knows everything sounds 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 silver baseball jacket with an abstract scorpion stenciled on the back. Its very contrivance is part of its brilliance. Flashier than, say, McQueen's (or Dean's) Baracuta, it's a garment that hisses "Look at me!" only to turn around and whisper, "Now you see me, now you don't."
Drive could have been the best drive-in feature of 1975. As it is, it's likely to be the best action movie of 2011. Refn hasn't invented a new language; it's just that he uses the vocabulary so well -- he's got the right tools and the right touch. The movie's newness is, paradoxically, intertwined with an appreciation for the past. Drive is a picture retooled from vintage parts, proof that you can build them like they used to.
[Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a different form, during Movieline's coverage of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.]