“It was exciting. It was on the edge. It was madness.”
That’s how the maniacal title character (Tom Hardy) describes prison in Bronson, but it could just as easily describe the films of Bronson director Nicolas Winding Refn, who also made the barbaric Valhalla Rising. Now Refn makes his Hollywood debut with Drive, which features barbarism of the distinctly contemporary – and Los Angeles – variety.
Drive is wild, as bold as the pink, slashing font of its titles and the pulsing throb of its signature track, College’s “A Real Hero.” It’s not the best film of 2011, but when all is said and done it will likely be the most alive.
Ryan Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt man who moonlights as a getaway driver (that’s the only name he gets in the movie’s credits: Driver). The film opens with a bravura robbery and escape, in which the driver plays a cat-and-mouse game with L.A. squad cars and even a police helicopter. The suspense is generated as much by quiet pauses than speeding – though of course there’s speeding too.
This driver keeps a low profile, but he’s eventually drawn out of his solemn life by two developments: a burgeoning friendship with the mother (Carey Mulligan) and young boy who live in the apartment next door; a decision to drive a race car for a businessman (Albert Brooks) with ties to organized crime. When the woman’s husband (Oscar Isaac) returns from a prison stint, these strands converge in a terrible way.
At first the soft, cracked-voice Gosling seems out of place with Refn’s other bulging, macho figures, but once the violence escalates – especially in a terrifying, stomping elevator scene – you understand why Gosling felt he could break up that New York City street fight a few weeks back. This is an actor of tremendous energy, sometimes to a distracting degree. Yet Refn, like director Henry Bean with Gosling’s breakout film, The Believer, channels that energy in a focused, alarming way.
Turning Gosling into a frightening man of action is part of Refn’s point. His previous explorations of male savagery have centered on men who were born to maim: Charles Bronson, who was known in real life as England’s most violent prisoner; and Mads Mikkelsen’s one-eyed warrior in Valhalla Rising. Drive gives us a guy trying to life a quiet, peaceful life until savagery comes his way. When push comes to shove in Drive, even nice, quiet guys will shove back – with a hammer.
As pure cinema, Drive is undeniably seductive. With its 1980s vibe – Refn has said the title font was cribbed from Risky Business – it makes you wish Refn, not Michael Mann, had been given the job of bringing Miami Vice to the big screen. (Mann films such as Heat and Collateral are also touchstones.) There are flourishes here – the streaks of bright blood on Gosling’s face playing off his blazing blue eyes, a climactic struggle depicted only in shadow, Christina Hendricks – that catch your breath, as only the best movie moments can do.
Despite this stylishness, Drive is also a movie in which violence matters. The driver may be a hero, as the College song implies, but he’s a hero in a nihilistic world that only truly rewards viciousness. The movie will get its share of love from gore geeks – the ones who will giggle with anticipation when Brooks pulls out his switchblade – but they’ll be in denial of the film’s tragic worldview: that man’s true nature is one of brutal violence. Good or bad, Drive suggests, we’ll all bleed in the end.