PLOT: A Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for thieves enters a world of problems when he gets involved with his neighbor, a single mother, and her ex-convict husband.
REVIEW: Intense, stylish, incredibly violent and enthralling, Nicolas Winding Refn's DRIVE is inhabited by the spirit of 40s film noir, 70s “lone wolf” thrillers and 80s Michael Mann crime dramas. That's not to say it doesn't have a personality of its own, because it certainly does: taking a cue from its lead character, a man simply known as “Driver” (Ryan Gosling), the film is laconic, sly, cool as ice – all the while hiding a simmering, snarling beast that bursts out in unexpected ways, shocking you into submission and defying you to deny its simple, primal power. DRIVE is a hell of an experience, made by one of the most exciting directors working today.
The plot is nothing new under the sun: In the tradition of the classic film noir potboilers, our lead is a mysterious man with no name and fewer words. Driver works as a stunt driver for the movies by day and as getaway driver by night. His motives and feelings toward both jobs are unclear, other than it's quite evident that he has a sixth sense for cars, can practically bend them to his will, and so he does what he's good at. Driver is under the friendly guidance of Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a small-timer who operates as his agent and boss, as well as his go-between for the getaway gigs. A run-down and desperate man, Shannon sees Driver as his ticket back into the big time: He wants to build a race car for his pupil, as he just knows the kid will blow them away on the track. Shannon intends to fund the project with money from Bernie (Albert Brooks, surprisingly menacing), a gangster and old friend, and Bernie's volatile partner Nino (the always great Ron Perlman).
Driver senses trouble brews in the venture, but his attentions are taken away by his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan, lovely and sympathetic) and her little boy, Benicio, who live simply and in subtle desperation. Irene, a quiet, somewhat mousy woman, is in turn drawn to Driver, who smiles at her boy with honesty and at her with warmth. While he's obviously hiding some odd kind of torment behind his eyes, Driver is a genuine man with a protective nature. The sexual tension between Driver and Irene is not overt, but their chemistry awakens something in the both of them.
Irene is obviously attracted to dangerous men, however, as she eventually reveals that Benicio's father is being released from prison. Standard Gabriel (played with sad eyes by Oscar Isaac) is another small-timer, with perhaps too much heart, or not enough smarts, to live in the dog-eat-dog world of real criminals, and finds himself in debt to some mob types who helped him out in the slammer. Standard easily sniffs out that there's something up between his wife and his eerily calm neighbor, but the heat he feels from his enemies is too great to escape from. He's in danger and so is his family... Of course, Driver can't allow that, and reluctantly involves himself in Standard's caper to pay back the money he owes.
To go much deeper into the tale would be unfair; one should allow the DRIVE's surprises and plot turns envelope them. Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini (working from James Sallis' novel of the same name) have crafted a film that is alive with danger and tension. Scenes not involving the screech of tires, or the crash of gunfire, play out in an ominous hush; a palpable threat always seems to be lurking around the edges of tranquil conversations. Refn crafts his scenes meticulously; sequence after sequence builds its own particular momentum, and each has a payoff that leaves you smiling, cringing or both.
As hyper-stylized and clever as Refn's movie is, it's helped immeasurably by a truly great cast, as every role is filled with the most adept possible performer. Ryan Gosling is amazing; the actor – quickly becoming a real-deal star – gives a brave, stand-out performance that deserves award recognition. He owns that elusive quality of being a take-no-shit man's man while not abandoning tenderness or relatability. He can also scare the shit out of you; Driver is in many ways a psychopath, and Gosling and Refn are wise to not shy away from this fact.
The supporting turns are just as worthy of high praise. Cranston – so frequently unsettling himself as a conflicted bad guy in “Breaking Bad” - is the very portrait of an affable hard-luck case for whom real success and respect always seem too far from reach. Meanwhile, Brooks and Perlman are terrific as a pair of intimidating, but world-weary, villains who live in the shadow of more imposing, more important criminals. They're exactly what you'd expect mobsters in their 60s to be like: Still mean, but perhaps getting' too old for this shit.
A movie like DRIVE thrives on energy. There can be endless action, cars can flip through the air, bullets can fly heedlessly, but it's all for naught if the film doesn't feel alive. DRIVE has a pulse that pounds, and it's easily one of this year's best.