Today’s cinema adventure: Drive, the slick 2011 crime thriller starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic who moonlights as a wheelman for high-dollar robberies; a highly marketable package featuring a lot of action and a little romance, which garnered much praise for its visual style- a glossy mix of 1980s-flavored grittiness and edgy contemporary flash- and drew controversy for its bursts of brutal violence. Essentially a post-modern film noir, set in a seemingly lawless Los Angeles populated and controlled by ruthless criminals, it seethes with an atmosphere of cynical amorality in which life is cheap and trust is for suckers and fools; and yet for all its hip, hard-edged posing, this movie is, at its core, pure Hollywood fantasy of a decidedly old-school nature. In essence, in fact, it’s a modernized, urban reworking of Shane, the revered and iconic western classic from 1953. All the plot elements are there: a loner with a mysterious past befriends a struggling family and becomes their protector against the machinations of a powerful gang of thugs, eventually taking justice into his own hands and embarking on a one-man crusade to eliminate the threat once and for all. Though the details have been modernized and reconfigured a bit, the structural blueprint is the same, from the dominant themes of family and justice vs. power and greed to the fact that its tarnished hero doesn’t carry a gun.
If noting this obvious parallel to a cinematic touchstone sounds like a negative criticism, it isn’t: many good films are built upon a framework borrowed from great films that came before, and although its plot line is clearly second-hand, Drive certainly re-interprets the story on its own terms. Part of the credit lies with Hossein Amini’s terse screenplay (adapted from a book by James Sallis), which cleverly updates the details of the plot and its characters while retaining the essence of its central conflicts. The foremost contributor to the success of this re-invention of cinematic myth, however, is director Nicholas Winding Refn, a Danish-born filmmaker whose lack of native familiarity with the distinctly American setting and milieu has allowed him to approach the material with the empirical eye of an observer. One of the consequences of his outsider’s viewpoint is the superb use of the L.A. locale, so often taken for granted by resident directors; he takes full advantage of it, not so much in his depiction of specific landmarks, but in the way he captures the character of it, particularly the Echo Park district where much of the action takes place. He also brings a detached objectivity that somehow adds to the emotional resonance of the story, helping it to feel freshly-minted despite the echoes of its heritage that bounce through every scene. With the help of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, he fully utilizes his locations to create an impressive visual coherence, infusing the squalid city streets with a slick, art-house sheen that echoes the feel of genre icons like Thief and To Live and Die in L.A. while still asserting Drive’s independence and modernity with its own up-to-the-minute, slo-mo/hi-res personality. This effect is enhanced by the dreamlike electronic score by Cliff Martinez, which also facilitates the deliberate build-and-release of tension that pushes the film towards its inevitable conclusion.
On the business end of the camera is an attractive cast comprised of talented up-and-comers, seasoned veterans, and a strategically familiar collection of supporting players. In the latter category are a trio of high-profile TV transplants: Christina Hendricks (compelling and memorable in a bad girl role that allows her to show a markedly different side than the one we see on Mad Men, but ultimately wasted in what amounts to little more than a cameo), Bryan Cranston (in a kinder, gentler variation of his Breaking Bad persona as Gosling’s employer and surrogate father figure), and Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman (lending his star power and his imposing presence to a part that could otherwise be played by any tough-guy actor). As the little family whose plight provides the catalyst for the film’s action are Oscar Isaacs (playing admirably against expectation as the ex-convict father striving to break free of his shady past, and nicely fleshing out a character which is ultimately little more than a plot device), young Kaden Leos (projecting a muted wisdom beyond his years and showing considerable onscreen chemistry with Gosling in their scenes together, which goes a long way towards providing the heart of the film), and English actress Carey Mulligan. Mulligan has perhaps the most difficult role here, in which she is required to maintain a quiet, attractive nobility while navigating a complex subtext of resignation, repressed attraction and nagging fear. She manages it well, inhabiting all those facets and bringing intelligence, sweetness, and dignity to the part (making it seem, perhaps, much more fully realized than it actually is), as well as creating her own chemistry with co-star Gosling; their scenes together are nearly wordless, for the most part, yet the pair infuses the silence with volumes of unspoken feeling, and when they finally kiss, the cumulative passion of their previous interactions is sufficiently powerful to warrant the highly cinematic approach with which director Refn chooses to showcase it.
Which, of course, brings us to our star: Gosling’s character (never named, but listed in the credits merely as “Driver”), like his cowboy counterpart in Shane, is rough-edged and dangerous, despite his All-American good looks and his quiet demeanor. Yet, street-savvy thug or not, he is also possessed of a resolutely ethical core which drives him from within just as deliberately as he himself drives his own restored 1973 Malibu. In order to successfully embody this urban paladin, Gosling must convincingly seem both too hard to be good and too good to be true- and he must do so with an amount of dialogue that can be described as sparing, at best. He pulls it off brilliantly, managing to be believable on both ends of this extreme spectrum with a likeably stoic performance that is (appropriately enough) reminiscent of Steve McQueen at his anti-heroic best. It’s a hypnotic performance, and watching the young actor confidently stand in the center of this film, it’s easy to see why he is one of the hottest leading men of the new Hollywood generation.
As good as Gosling is, though, the standout performance in Drive comes from a surprising source: Albert Brooks, known for his comedic work both as an actor and filmmaker, here plays against type as a ruthless gangster. It’s a shrewd bit of casting, and Brooks takes full advantage of it, undercutting the cold-bloodedness of the character with his familiar, likeably nebbish persona; the result is a contrast between charm and menace that makes him easily one of the most chilling big-screen bad guys in recent memory. Despite the impressive work of director Refn and the stellar turns of the other leading players, his performance is perhaps the one element of Drive which elevates it from the level of a well-made potboiler to that of a potential Hollywood classic.
As to that, only time will tell. Drive has a dazzling quality that keeps you mesmerized while its subliminal elements do their work; fooled by the flashy surface, we fail to recognize that we are being shrewdly manipulated by the familiar undercurrents that pull our sympathies and shape our expectations. As a result, we are more inclined to suspend our disbelief in the blatantly romantic premise at the core of the movie, a premise summed up in its tagline, “Some heroes are real;” or at least, in theory we should be. Some viewers, however, may not be taken in by the smoke and mirrors, and may find they are unwilling to buy into a plot that, though appropriate for a larger-than-life epic of frontier justice and heroic gunslingers, seems decidedly unconvincing for a gritty tale of corruption and betrayal in the seedy urban underworld. It should also be noted that, in spite of its family-friendly roots, this movie contains some very graphic and disturbing violence- in particular, an elevator scene (from which the aforementioned controversy resulted) that had to be edited into a toned-down version, and which is still shockingly gruesome- so more squeamish viewers should stand warned that they might want to stay away. However, for most filmgoers- particularly those with an admiration for the nuts and bolts of the art- Drive will likely provide a rich experience, perhaps even more so for those savvy viewers who can recognize the archetypal formula from which it is derived. Though its plot may hold few surprises (at least for anyone who has seen Shane), and though it may, in the final analysis, be unconvincing, there is still a fascination in seeing the ways in which Refn and his crew have molded it into its new form, and the attendant implications that arise from its transposition in setting, such as the differences (and similarities) in the portrayal of masculine and feminine roles, the metaphoric associations of our obsessive American car culture, and the difficulties of defining ethical behavior in a world complicated by conflicting moral standards. Unacknowledged remake though it may be, it is nevertheless an inventive and original piece of filmmaking, and even if we already know where its taking us, it makes getting there an exhilarating ride.