Drive is that rare and mythical film that leaves you thinking about the movie for a long time after you walk out of the theater. And this is no Inception; there are no drastic twists or mindfuck plotlines to make you go back over the experience to better understand what you've witnessed. No, this is a straightforward movie paced and stylized in a way that's amazing in its simplicity.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn's earlier film Bronson was similar in the sense of awe elicited through direction and stylization. That was a reinvention of the tone of British cinema and Drive is a reinvention of the American crime drama. Inspirations, from Clint Eastwood's "The Man With No Name", Bullitt, and the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, have been listed endlessly, but the specific films that this movie calls to my mind are the works of Michael Mann and William Friedkin's To Live And Die In L.A. Much about the movie is a throwback to 80's crime cinema, from the upbeat electronic pop soundtrack to the moody lighting to the neon pink cursive title font. The amoral antihero at the center of the story is another callback to Mann's Thief or William Petersen's character in To Live And Die. You can feel the inspirations running through the film, fueling it, and giving it a texture you haven't seen in modern movies.
Ryan Gosling plays the Driver, a nameless stuntman who, by night, is a wheelman-for-hire. The plot revolves around his ties to a set of mobsters and their ensuing revenge after he decides to help the criminal husband of a woman he falls in love with. The Driver then inflicts his own bloody vengeance on everyone he comes across. You would think that this would, then, fall under the mileau of the typical "tough guy" role. Instead, Gosling's character is alternately emotionless and sweetly child-like; he is a sociopath with a heart of gold, helping a woman and child in a way that suggests some dark past that echoes their situation. He goes about his brutal attempts to set things right with what seems the best of intentions.
Gosling plays the role perfectly. I can't imagine what his process was to reach the decision on how to play the character, but he chose wisely. He is the sturdy center that the movie hangs on. The rest of the small cast also delivers excellent performances. Bryan Cranston plays a worn-down father figure with grimy aplomb, while the usually-comedic Albert Brooks plays a mobster with both a sadness and a vicious streak that has never existed in anything he's done before; as much as I love Defending Your Life, this is the role of his lifetime. Carey Mulligan beautifully plays the neighbor/love interest of the Driver with a quiet simplicity, her elfin face delivering much of her performance through glances and smiles. Chrstina Hendricks and Ron Perlman have surprisingly small roles, but their talents help give the moments they're on screen more import.
The pacing of the film is tight, to say the least. There's not a shot in the movie that doesn't belong, nor a minute that could be cut. It's not non-stop action, by any standard, and there are countless long, quiet moments in the film that play out slowly and deliberately. This is more art film than crime drama or action flick. But there are those bursts of beautiful driving choreography and snaps of violence that punctuate the long, silent moments where Refn builds atmosphere.
Existential and fatalistic, the film isn't for everyone. Those looking for action and excitement might leave disappointed; the squeamish may reel away from the film's gore. But those who do love film, who can appreciate an artistic touch and noir-ish gloom as much as they can a car chase will find endless things to love here. It is a movie that needs to be seen multiple times and thoroughly digested before you mine out all of its mysteries. I already can't wait to see it again.