Los Angeles stunt driver, Driver (Ryan Gosling: Crazy, Stupid, Love.), isn’t above moonlighting to make a little extra cash. He offers his services as a wheelman to robbers in the greater L.A. area.
He lives a monk-like existence, moving from one Spartan apartment to another and speaking with no one but his manager/boss/agent Shannon (Bryan Cranston: Contagion). Driver is content with that existence until he meets shy waitress Irene (Carey Mulligan: Never Let Me Go) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos in his screen debut), who make the man behind the wheel long for more from life.
It’s too bad then, when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac: Sucker Punch) gets back from jail, putting the breaks on Driver’s budding romance. It’s also too bad that Standard’s jail pals threaten to harm his family if he doesn’t rob one last pawnshop with them.
Being the best wheelman in town and probably feeling a bit guilty about lusting after Standard’s family, Driver volunteers his speedy services. When the robbery goes spectacularly wrong, Driver finds himself surrounded by dead bodies and in the crosshairs of mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks: The Simpsons) and Nino (Ron Perlman: Conan the Barbarian). Now Driver will have to find out if all his fancy behind-the-wheel tricks can keep him out of the hands of mobsters with a grudge.
Drive is a European thriller trapped in an American action movie. While most American films are concerned with who their characters are, European thrillers care more about what their characters represent.
Driver doesn’t get a name because he is what he does and nothing else. We don’t see him reading books or hanging out with chums chugging beer. And we certainly don’t see him spending six hours a day in the gym to get his toned physique. He drives. He works on cars. He stands next to cars. He talks about cars.
When Driver branches out into bigger things, forming a relationship with neighbor Irene and her adorable moppet Benicio, his world tips out of control.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) made a name for himself crafting European action thrillers in his native Denmark, where he wrote and directed for the screen. In his first film he didn’t write, Refn proves he’s an excellent craftsman in any language. His action sequences are bloody, intense and beautiful to look at. Quieter moments are shot with artful lighting and unique angles. It’s a study in craft.
It isn’t, however, a study in character. While Gosling has lively eyes that betray his impassive face, costar Mulligan is just blank. It’s understandable that Driver would be charmed by little Benicio, but it’s hard to believe he’d give Irene a glance in the rearview mirror. Her presence is a void, injuring an otherwise fascinating film. It would have been better to engineer a romance between Cranston and Gosling; they, at least, have chemistry.
The real standout character of Drive, however, is Brooks’ Bernie, who is viscerally frightening, a terrifying threat, springing to violence without mussing his suit or raising his voice.
Though Drive isn’t a perfect film from a storytelling perspective, it illustrates the craft of filmmaking.