“Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling, starts out like a subtle, contemporary noir film, one full of unexpected turns, small surprises, and attention to detail. Then, unhappily, director Nicolas Wending Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini let it devolve into a blood and guts thriller. (The movie is what’s sometimes termed a “hard R,” though not for sex, the usual deal-breaker for avoiding the dreaded “NC-17” rating.)
Gosling is identified only as “Driver,” and that’s what he does: he’s a wheel man for rent, a stunt driver for the movies and, by night, a getaway car driver with strict rules. At the opening, he’s pursuing this moonlighting business on the almost empty streets of L.A. Refn pulls off a masterful sequence here, avoiding most of the car chase clichés we’ve come to expect and shooting much of the action from inside the car, the point of view coming from just over Driver’s shoulder.
He also has another day job as a mechanic for a Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a guy who has run afoul of the money lenders but still dreams big. He wants to borrow $400,000 from Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, cast distinctly against type) to finance a race car. Bernie gets the go-ahead from his partner, Nino (Ron Perlman, cast right on type), a rough customer indeed. Driver somewhat reluctantly shakes on the deal with Bernie, both of them admitting that their hands are dirty, tipping us off to one of the movie’s major themes.
To further complicate this already complex affair, Driver meets his next door neighbor, Irene, winsomely played by Carey Mulligan, and her young son Benecio (Kaden Leos). They are awaiting the release from prison of her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), but she and Driver are clearly, wordlessly drawn to each other, Refn handling their mutual attraction with a restraint that characterizes most of the movie’s first half.
Alas, things go rapidly downhill from that point. Instead of character development and depth, we get knifings, stompings, shootings—you name it, if it’s bloody and violent. The careful work with lighting, music, and the uniformly solid acting becomes obscured by the gory action, Refn going for the cheap thrill rather than the thoughtful moment. How much of this is true to James Sallis’s novella I can’t say, and I don’t plan to find out.
“Drive” has a lot going for it, cinematically and thematically. That the filmmakers blew the opportunity to make a really appealing, unusual move makes it that much more disappointing.