Ryan Gosling plays a quietly charming yet crazy bastard in director Nicolas Winding Refn's alternately hypnotic and unnerving Drive. The film is one of the year's greatest stylistic triumphs, and further establishes Gosling as one of the best talents putting his pretty face in front of cameras for a living.
Gosling plays Driver; we never get his real name. He's called Driver in the film's credits because ... well ... he drives. A lot. During the day, he's a stunt driver for movies, and is willing to take insane risks for a quick buck. He also works part-time for an auto-mechanic friend, Shannon (the invaluable Bryan Cranston).
At night, he'll occasionally take a gig driving for robberies. In an early scene, Driver does just that, evading cops and police helicopters in such a brilliantly sneaky way that he must have prominent placement in every crime lord's Rolodex.
On top of all this, he's an aspiring racecar driver, with Shannon as his agent. The two procure a sponsorship from Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a cranky restaurant owner and former movie producer. This film provides Brooks with his best role in years, and arguably the best of his career. You've never seen him like this before, and you probably won't see him like this again.
Driver lives an otherwise-quiet existence in an apartment building, where single-mom and waitress Irene (Carey Mulligan) raises her son while waiting for her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), to return from prison. Irene and Driver strike up a friendly—and flirty—relationship that includes Driver looking after the little boy. When Standard returns from prison, he senses that something may've been going on with his wife and the new friend, but he's a little too tired and beat down to make a big deal out of it.
Circumstances lead to Driver getting involved in a pawnshop heist that goes horribly awry. Yet more circumstances lead to Driver and Bernie engaging in an unholy showdown that leads to shocking and even over-the-top violence.
For a while, Drive plays like a dreamy '80s flick, with a pulsing soundtrack and driving montages that reminded me of the more-dramatic parts of Risky Business. However, during one scene deep into the film, the tone changes completely, and the gore quotient shoots sky-high.
Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini (working from a book by James Sallis) wisely tell us little about Driver's background. Knowing too much about the man's history would destroy much of the film's allure. There's plenty of mystery, but it's easy to deduce that a lot of bad shit went down in his life, based on his ability to cave in the head of a hitman with a shoe.
The film features many stunning set pieces, including a sequence involving Driver and Bernie's cantankerous partner, Nino (Ron Perlman), which plays out like something from a slasher film of the best kind. Driver's choice to wear a stunt mask during this scene had me thinking about Michael Myers in John Carpenter's original Halloween.
Brooks' character transformation is a true stunner. When Bernie finds his back up against the wall, a wholly unexpected facet of his personality comes to light. The man who made Lost in America and gave his voice to Finding Nemo proves that he is capable of very frightening things on a movie screen.
Mulligan gets big points for sounding completely American; her British accent is well-covered. Her performance is subtle and effective, a nice follow-up to her solid work in last year's Never Let Me Go.
Cranston, such a gifted actor, disappears into any role he is handed. His tragic Shannon is a true heartbreaker.
Gosling is so good that he can keep you rooting for his character, even when that character becomes completely unhinged. His portrayal goes into the Soft-Spoken Psychopath Hall of Fame alongside De Niro's Travis Bickle.
In a fair world, Gosling and Brooks would find themselves in Oscar contention. The poor box office performance thus far for the film, however, doesn't bode well for their chances. That's a shame.
Refn and Gosling are planning on working together again. They have announced Only God Forgives, listed for probable release in 2012, and are discussing several other film projects, including a remake of Logan's Run. It will be interesting to see if these two could become something akin to De Niro and Scorsese with their future output. With Drive, the duo is off to a rather incredible start.