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Old 22-09-11, 14:29   #1
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Popcorn Drive Review

  • Peter Bradshaw
  • guardian.co.uk, Thursday 22 September 2011 09.00 EDT

The car's the star ... Ryan Gosling in Drive

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is an LA pulp thriller, very brutal, very slick. It arrives here on an eddy of editorial hype; there is hardly a male pundit or columnist in Britain under 70 who hasn't declared a simpering man-crush on its star, Ryan Gosling, playing the permafrost-cool hero with no name. He's a Hollywood stunt driver with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, wearing a sleek bomber jacket with a scorpion on the back. Secretly, he also works for scary criminals as a wheelman, a getaway specialist; he gets top dollar, because he's the very best. With no fear, he can drive at terrifying speeds with extraordinary manoeuvrability; he has a sixth sense for cop cars and police helicopters. However, he has one super-special rule that the robbers must agree to, but which makes zero narrative sense. More of that in a moment.

Drive is a good film with great visual flair, in the style of Elmore Leonard or Quentin Tarantino, and with a little of their natural gruesome gaiety and gallows humour. Gosling has charisma and presence, although his facial expression is often set to "sardonic". Yet I can't quite join in the widespread critical enthusiasm that has greeted this film, and on the two times I've seen it, I couldn't join in the nervous shrieks of audience laughter that its ultra-violence provokes.
The idea is that Gosling's impassive driver gets his Hollywood stunt gigs and maybe also his criminal engagements through a garage owner, a cheerful crook called Shannon (Bryan Cranston) with mob connections. Gosling's life looks as if it will be turned around when he falls quietly in love with his next-door neighbour Irene, played with dignity and tenderness by Carey Mulligan. She's a single mom with a little boy who likes Gosling: her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is an incompetent crook now in jail, and it is evidently Gosling's tough, unspoken decency that keeps this relationship platonic. He is, moreover, joining a legit business, a speed-racing show Shannon is setting up with his mobster buddies Bernie and Nino terrific performances from Albert Brooks (a rare bad-guy part) and Ron Perlman. But then Irene's man gets out of the joint, still mixed up in rough stuff, and just for Irene's sake, Gosling does one last driving job on his behalf, which of course goes horribly wrong.
Here is where is this tense, taut drama takes a lurching left-turn into ultra-violence and chaos. Gosling's driver had until this moment seemed like a basically sympathetic, romantic guy involved in crime of course, but who made a point of not carrying a gun. Now the catastrophe of this last job seems to unlock a psychopathic capacity for extreme brutality. Is this a facet of his personality? Or just a style accessory for the film in general? So many people in this film seem to have the same capacity, and often the violence rips holes in the plot, as well as the bodies. At one stage, somebody kills someone else while chillingly cooing reassurance, yet what he's after is more or less under his is nose, and it doesn't occur to him to look for it. At another stage, someone gets horrifyingly stomped to death in an incautious location, with the body airily undisposed of. A bit of a rash killing in this era of CSI and CCTV and door-to-door inquiries.
Then there is Gosling's rule, supposedly a mark of his hyper-strict professionalism. He will drive the robbers as brilliantly as they could ever wish. But only for five minutes. When the five minutes is up, no matter where they are, he parks and leaves them there. What on earth is the point of a jobsworth getaway driver who downs tools after five minutes? A getaway guy surely has to get the robbers to their pre-arranged safe house, no matter what. What do this movie's creators imagine a robbery involves? It's like having a cab driver who says he'll drive you really really fast in the direction of your house, but only for five minutes. The naivety and absurdity sit uncomfortably with all that super-cool violence.
That said, there are some great cameos with very nice Leonardesque lines. Christina Hendricks almost steals the picture as a mysterious woman called Blanche suitably white-faced with terror at the awful fate she correctly suspects awaits her when the heist goes wrong. Hendricks brilliantly transmits pure, elemental fear. Brooks and Perlman have some crackling dialogue, especially Perlman who complains that east coast gangster bullies still pinch his cheeks as if he's a kid. "I'm 59 years old!" A world of humiliation and despair is cleverly contained in that. Drive is a movie with power but is still directionless; the acceleration is great, but the steering needs looking at.
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