“DRIVE” My rating: B- (Opens wide on Sept. 16)
100 minutes | MPAA rating: R
There are parts of “Drive” that I absolutely loved.
There were others that made me shake my head in disbelief.
Talk about leaving a film with mixed feelings!
“Drive” cements my suspicion that Ryan Gosling is an absolutely great actor.
And it introduces to mainstream American audiences Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish filmmaker of tremendous talent.
It’s also a movie that after a promising first hour goes insanely off the tracks, delivering shifts of mood and tone so jarring as to loosen your fillings.
Not to mention some violence that will shock even jaded contemporary audiences.
This was not unexpected. Winding Refn tends toward deeply flawed films containing astounding moments.
The gritty “Pusher” trilogy made in his native Denmark, his disturbing “Bronson” (about a psychotic prison inmate) and his Viking mini-epic “Valhalla Rising” all reveal a filmmaker obsessed with mayhem, madness, futility and death.
“Drive” is Winding Refn’s first American feature (he spent much of his childhood in NYC) and for half its running time it’s an arresting example of L.A. noir.
It begins with a borderline brilliant 10-minute sequence in which our protagonist (Gosling), known only as the Driver, serves as wheelman for a couple of robbers. Displaying uncanny cool while police helicopters and patrol cars try to chase him down, this driver-for-hire outsmarts and outsteers his pursuers.
When next seen the Driver is wearing a police uniform. Actually, it’s a costume. One of his gigs is as a stunt driver for the movies.
But his main job is as a mechanic at a garage run by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a criminal wannabe who provides the Driver with souped-up getaway vehicles and harbors dreams of running his own NASCAR team with our boy behind the wheel.
These two go to a former movie producer (Albert Brooks, playing an erudite villain) and his much more thuggish colleague (Ron Perlman) for a loan to buy a stock car. Bad idea.
Meanwhile the Driver has met and fallen for Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son who live next door. This is a big deal for the few-of-words Driver, a loner with apparently no past and, aside from Shannon, no relationships.
Gosling has maybe 20 lines of dialogue in the film’s first 45 minutes — there are times when you wonder if the Driver has some sort of learning disability — but he’s so good at subtly expressing the character’s inner life that you can’t look at anything else. This guy can act with his fingernails. No need to talk.
Most of the first hour is a very quiet character study and a slowly growing romance. Then Irene’s husband, who’s been in prison, enters the picture and things quickly turn dark. There’s a robbery, a gym bag with $1 million of the mob’s cash and a price on the Driver’s head.
Before you can say, “revenge yarn,” our hero — who has always eschewed firearms and violence — goes on a bloody rampage that finds him negotiating the City of Angels in blood-splattered clothes (ludicrously enough, nobody notices…maybe it’s a West Coast thing).
“Drive” won Winding Refn top directing honors at Cannes this year. Which makes sense, for throughout he shows himself masterfully in control of his cast and the tools of filmmaking. In only a few instances — a sappy creek-side respite with Irene and her boy and some really awful musical choices — does he flub up.
But the screenplay by Hossein Amini (from a novel by James Sallis) is really two movies that feel incompatible (lonely guy love story, astonishingly brutal crime yarn). And when it’s all over you realize that for all of Gosling’s fantastic work, he’s selling an utterly improbable character.
| Robert W. Butler