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Written by: Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks

With Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn sidesteps the silliness of recent faux-exploitation films and instead crafts a hardened art-house masterpiece; a strange and compelling film that strides the line between American carsploitation and the noir-inspired crime films of Jean-Pierre Mellville. The film follows a man (Ryan Gosling) who is a exceptionally gifted Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. What makes Drive glow is the way the plot delights in tropes and types, filling out the cast with the love interest Irene (Carey Mulligan), her jealous ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Isaac), the mentor/friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the smart mob boss (a chilling Albert Brooks) and his dangerous, wild gangster partner (Ron Perlman). Refn gathers up old, dead plot-points and L.A. settings and arranges them in such a way as to set them on fire with incredible new life, while ignoring the temptation to be ironic or quirky and not giving in for even a second.

Gosling’s Driver is strong, silent and cool-to-death, in the vein of Clint Eastwood’s Blondie. He’s a man who is very good at one thing, so that’s what he does. In fact it seems to be the only thing he does. His apartment has a bed in it, and a lamp. When he’s home he sits at the table and repairs parts from his car but he’s usually not home. I was instantly reminded of Alain Delon’s Jef in Le Samouraï (1967) and of George Clooney’s Jack in The American (2010). These films are studies in masculinity and Drive is the same, taking the concept of “manliness” and ultra-masculinity and bringing it to it’s absolute extreme.  The sort of masculinity in this film (as in the others) is an inward sort, these men are tough but they’re small, they’re angry but they’re quiet, they’re talented but they’re not impressed, they’re in love but they couldn’t possibly be in love. Cool here is not a calm, and these men are burning with such an intensity that they have no option but to burn out. Whatever emotional state Gosling’s character is in, he can never reveal. Some intense emotion exists in him, stirred by the tenderness shown to him by Irene and her son, and it drives his every action but it is never seen, only as a shadow lurking beneath his always smooth surface. The film’s brilliant soundtrack does an awful lot to underscore this aspect of Gosling’s character; icy, synthy basslines drive emotionless songs about love and longing.

It’s certainly worth emphasizing what a wonderful supporting cast Drive has. Carey Mulligan’s Irene, though the emotional center of the film, is no wimp and Mulligan’s control gives the character a very tough edge. Bryan Cranston gives a solid effort as Shannon, Gosling’s partner and stunt co-ordinator, and Ron Perlman is very funny in the role of Nino, the temperamental gangster. The most shocking performance of the film comes from comedy legend Albert Brooks, who plays Bernie Rose. Rose is a local gangster, at times contemplative and fair, but when he has run out of options he is ruthless. Brooks plays Rose with an uncharacteristic ferocity and by the end of the film the character is a terrifying match for Gosling’s driver.

Refn seems to go out of his way to make sure that Drive never quite delivers as expected. There are thrilling and elegant chase sequences but they’re few and far between. There are moments of absurd, grindhouse gore and other moments of surprisingly enlightened restraint. The relationship between Irene and the driver is certainly a weighted presence in the film but it develops very little and it is certainly not to be his saving grace. Minutes pass without a single word of dialogue, while at times Perlman and Brooks never seem to stop talking. Refn displays extraordinary talent as he glides between humourous  spontaneity and thoughtful control. Most importantly, Refn never takes the time to spoil his audience, giving only what is required to follow and not a expository word more.

Drive is thrilling and smart. Refn clearly knows his film history but he’s never showing off. This is a stylish and thoughtful film that excites but never boils over.