Every individual element of “Drive” is familiar, but the combination is uniquely intoxicating — a fresh, lurid, melancholy neo-noir with a hint of existential crime thriller and, for some reason, an ’80s-ish techno-pop soundtrack. I was absorbed in the movie while I watched it, but it was afterward that I felt its full effect, like a moody, lingering dream. It’s stuck with me for days now.
The director is Nicolas Winding Refn, whose “Bronson,” starring Tom Hardy as a notorious English sociopath, earned some attention a couple years ago. Refn’s name, all Danish and hard to pronounce, is going to start popping up more frequently now, because “Drive” clearly demonstrates his talent for stylish storytelling, his eye for detail, and his ability to conjure images of subtle beauty and shocking brutality.
“Drive” follows an unnamed Los Angeles man, played by Ryan Gosling, who makes a living as a wheelman for small-time robbers and burglars. He’ll wait while you do your job, then get you away from the crime scene speedily and without being caught. Whatever happens during the heist itself or after he’s finished his job is none of his concern. He is not a man of many words, at least not initially. As the film progresses and certain aspects of his life start to get out of control, he’s obligated to talk more. That’s how you know something is wrong.
The Driver is associated with an auto mechanic named Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a luckless man with a limp who talks enough for the both of them. Shannon, in turn, is affiliated with Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a vicious Hollywood producer who may invest in stock car racing and employ the Driver as a driver. And Bernie Rose is connected to Nino (Ron Perlman), a pizzeria owner and mid-level mobster who literally swaggers when he walks.
Parallel to this unfolding action, the Driver becomes cautiously friendly with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother in his apartment building whose husband (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. The nature of the Driver’s work requires him not to have a lot of personal relationships, a policy that blends well with the nature of the Driver himself. But Irene might be an exception. (As a side note, Mulligan’s performance as Irene isn’t bad, but it’s Christina Hendricks who makes an indelible impression in her few scenes as a professional criminal. Indelible is definitely the word I want to use.)
Our hero is meant to be somewhat inscrutable, and he is, but Gosling has enough soul to keep the Driver from being dull, even if we’re never quite given complete access to his emotions. In any event, he’s surrounded by fascinating characters like Cranston’s pitifully desperate mechanic, Perlman’s seething and barely controlled gangster, and Brooks’ vicious boss. (Get ready to be unnerved by Albert Brooks, a truly singular experience.) Every man in the film is angry and frustrated, giving rise to dark humor and outright sadness, as well as terror and bloodshed.
The brooding loner who lets his guard down, the job that goes wrong, the downward spiral into dangerous territory — you can see the familiar pieces of an underworld thriller starting to line up, and while “Drive” doesn’t try to hide its inner potboiler (it’s based on a pulp novel by James Sallis), it doesn’t lean on it, either. Only on paper does it resemble the formulaic crime dramas it sounds like it reminds you of. On the screen, spinning its uncommonly entertaining yarn out of perilous characters and nightmarish scenarios, it feels dazzlingly original.
A- (1 hr., 40 min.; )