To the two women exiting the theater at the end of Drive: I don't make a habit of eavesdropping, but couldn't help but hear one of you lament to the other in a hushed tone that "I just don't care for violence in movies," to which your friend replied with an ashen look: "I did not like that."
Ladies, my sympathy in this situation runs only so deep. I'm not sure what you were expecting from an R-rated film billing itself as a dramatic heist thriller, especially if you watched the previews that make it pretty clear that the conflicts in Drive will not be solved with peaceful negotiating and handshakes. Then again, it's somewhat understandable that you might not have expected indie hero Ryan Gosling to make the leap here to full-fledged action star as the intense, mysterious and occasionally violent unnamed protagonist. And it's definitely understandable if you weren't expecting funnyman Albert Brooks to steal scenes as the sadistic bad guy with a penchant for knives.
Drive is dark, violent and memorable in a way few films are these days. It proceeds at a pace that refuses to cater to today's ever-growing attention-deficit audience, and is all the better for it. There are nods to the pulp movies and television shows of yesteryear, yet never to the point of parody, and never to the point where it feels like we've seen this before. And despite a plot that revolves around a secretive wheel man (i.e. the hired getaway car driver), The Fast and the Furious this is not. There are probably more frenetically edited quick cuts in one scene of the latter than in all of Drive. For some, this will take some getting used to.
It might also take some time to adjust to Gosling as leading man in a mainstream film, but this is no sell-out role (John Cusack, are you listening?). As a movie stuntman by day and criminal by night, our anonymous driver lives a reclusive life by choice, speaking only when necessary, and sometimes not even then. His entire relationship with his next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son evolves mostly with body language, smiles, and long stares as opposed to, you know, words. Somehow director Nicolas Refn keeps this man-of-few-words angle from regressing into silliness, with credit also to Gosling for playing it straight without a hint of irony.
The hypnotic pacing and development—all against the backdrop of wonderfully kitschy "Miami Vice"-style synthesizers and '80s music—succeeds even as cracks emerge in the story. When Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, it's not long before Gosling is offering his driving expertise for a robbery, ostensibly to keep Irene and the son safe from retribution. The logic of our driver's motive here to help out a thug he just met runs counter to what we know of the character, though I suppose the "things we'll do for a woman" adage trumps all.
The quick job doesn't turn out to be so simple, and Gosling's worlds begin to collide as the number of people who want him dead grows larger from scene to scene. Not coincidentally, the violence dial gets turned up a few notches as the post-robbery fallout begins throughout Los Angeles. For a man who doesn't like to carry a gun, the driver proves to be adept at killing bad guys in a wide variety of ways, from drowning to stomping to, yes, plain old shooting. As the women exiting the theater would tell you, the scenes are at times intensely gruesome. Playing career criminal Bernie Rose, Brooks is a particularly malignant fellow disguised by his suits and mellow demeanor, and the comedian is very good here playing against type. Also memorable is "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston as Shannon, a sad sack small-time criminal who probably should have chosen a different profession.
The coincidences pile up as the story unfolds, but given how wholly original Drive feels, it's a forgivable offense. I keep replaying scenes in my head—like the one in an elevator where Gosling must protect Irene while taking down a bad guy—and can't remember if it was shot in slow motion or not. I think it was, but even the scenes that aren't feel so deliberate and meticulous that you can't help but be transfixed. There is confident filmmaking at work here and a wonderful film noir feel that permeates most shots, especially those on the streets of L.A. Drive is a smooth action thriller done right.
Drive continues at the Carmike 10 and the Village 6.