REVIEW: Ryan Gosling Is the Goslingest in Superb, '70s-Inflected Drive

Movieline Score:

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.]


  • Charles says:

    It's been a crummy movie year, and I'm looking to finally see a great movie. This looks like the one.

  • stwsr says:

    The best movie of the year so far and we're already into September!

  • AS says:

    Thank you! I'm so tired of people acting like 2011 is a good year for movies. It's been total shit. By this point last year there was about 5 or 6 movies I'd given at least a 4 / 5 to. This year? Not fucking one in 9 months. I'm hoping Drive will break that pattern. Honestly, I don't think I've ever encountered such praise for a film.
    Not only is every review I've seen of the film positive, but the ratings are astronomically high, Rolling Stone gave it a 4/4, Blu gave it a 10/10, gave it a 5/5, Roger Ebert gave it a 3.5 / 4.

  • casting couch says:

    This is the only movie I've been looking forward to this year. All the 3D "blockbuster" crap is getting so tiresome.

  • AS says:

    I've just seen it and goddamn it I've been disapointed again. It was good but far from great. I'm the last person in the world to refer to a movie as "boring" but man this was slow. Very similar to The American. Gosling was brilliant however, and Brooks was very good too, although not Oscar worthy as many critics have claimed.

  • Charles says:

    Yeah, I haven't seen it yet and I'm already expecting to be disappointed. Michael Phillips gives it only 2-1/2 stars (not that he's all that trustworthy, mind you) and says it falls apart at the end. I'm hoping the acting and the cool style make it worthwhile anyway.
    Oh well. The search continues.

  • AS says:

    Well, I just went to go see it for the 2nd time and I'd like to retract what I said before. I now understand why it's a great film. It's weird, some movies are just way better the 2nd time you watch them, like The Departed or Shutter Island. The scenes that seemed slow the 1st time I watched it were now filled with tension and emotion. I was also able to appreciate the soundtrack a lot more the 2nd time, idk. So Drive is now my favorite film of the year. If there's anyone out there who didn't like it the 1st time, watch it again, seriously, you wouldn't think there'd be a difference but there really is.

  • Charles says:

    Yep, you're right on in your reassessment. I was totally mesmerized from the opening action scene until near the very end. The ending disappointed me a bit, though I guess it's in keeping with the style of the movie. And yeah, Gosling, Brooks, the visual style -- all great.
    Anyway, glad you liked it the second time. And, btw, I felt the same way about The Departed -- was disappointed the first time, loved it the second.

  • Charles says:

    A few days back, I read David Edelstein's review of "Drive ." He HATED it. What fascinated me about his review is that Edelstein used pretty much the same arguments that Pauline Kael (Stephanie's mentor) used 30 years ago to take apart Michael Mann's "Thief" (a movie similar to "Drive"). Which makes me think Kael would haved this movie.

  • richard says:

    think, charles, pauline would get DRIVE....I AM wondering if i know You....
    Don't think your argument is valid....

  • Charles says:

    Let's put on a seance and see what Pauline has to say, Richard.

  • sweetvalleyguy says:

    People are freaking out about this movie like they’ve been fingerbanged by Jesus and I can only assume they are excited by the stylised tone to the point that they are willing to ignore its obvious superficiality and cynicism. But I can only say what I truly feel, and that is, this movie is a con.
    The best things about it are: Ryan’s awesome scorpion jacket. Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’. The opening action scene. The heist sequence. A few moments of violent, well-shot action give the movie a brief pulse.
    But that’s pretty much it. There are so many interminable long moments where the two comatose leads stare at each other as if something meaningful is going on beneath the surface. But there is no subtext here. The writing, direction and acting are all underplayed to the point of tedium. It has a promising premise; what a great idea, a story about a Hollywood stuntman who lives a double life…so much could be done with this. But here it never really gets going. I suspect this is a very shallow movie that critics are fawning over because it won something at Cannes, and it isn’t Transformers. But if that's all it takes to be a masterpiece, then god help us!
    Overall, Drive is so insistently cool, it chilled me to the marrow. Even more disappointingly, it’s not even that stylish - some nice shots of LA at night and 80s italic neon pink credits do not equal an artistic statement or anything that can be called an original style. I like Gosling, I love Cranston, I like noir, I like LA, I like action, I like the 80s, I like arthouse, I like character development, I like subtlety in filmmaking. But that doesn’t mean I’m a sucker who mistakes portentous, affected filmmaking for great art.
    I go into movies open-minded and I want filmmakers to succeed in telling great stories that make us think and feel. But this left me cold. I almost always agree with SZ’s great reviews! but not this time.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Got to give it up for Sweetvalleyguy here, he's right on the mark. There's nothing incredibly deep about "Drive"'s lingering dialogue scenes; the aesthetic is clearly to keep things as blank as possible in hope that the audience will pour in its own character, motivation etc., because the script's own contributions are ridiculously two-dimensional. There's a few scenes where the camera teases beautifully over room details a la '70s Scorsese, and I didn't have a problem with the overall pace per se, but there's no there there. It's the most desperately inflated wannabe-mythopoetic pap around, and folks are "oh, but don't you get it? it's cool". Depends what you call cool, I guess. Style is all it has, and it doesn't have buckets of that either. (There's this "a stylist in the spirit of the masters" guff going around, which makes me gag; hell, early-'90s *Woo* was far more stylish than this.) I'm not surprised that Michael Mann's name keeps recurring in reviews and summaries - another addict to synthesised machismo, ludicrous character, insulting female roles and the fervent belief that a sheen can be mistaken for content.
    I'm sure the praise is being heaped on because the season has been otherwise so lean. But has our cinematic currency been so devalued that this art-film-for-dull-15-year-old-boys is getting words like *masterpiece* lobbed at it? As Yoda once said (via Anthony Lane), break me a fucking give.

  • Deeply, deeply disagree about your read on Mann, but you get super-extra bonus points for coining "desperately inflated wannabe-mythopoetic pap." Puts "emo-fascism" to shame!