By the end of “Drive,” a violent, stylish action flick that opened today, Ryan Gosling joins the ranks of brooding strongmen like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, men who show their convictions through their actions and their emotions by what they leave unsaid. With high-caliber yet artsy violence and a strong but sacrificial storyline, director Nicolas Refn creates the best Western you’ve ever seen without a single horse or six-shooter.
Gosling is a character known only as “The Driver,” a modern-day outlaw living in Los Angeles. By day, he drives stunt cars for the movies. He moonlights as a get-away driver, chauffeuring criminals from their heists to safety. He stays aloof from the criminal world, accessible only through an ever-changing phone number that protects his identity. His one partner in crime is a two-bit mechanic named Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who supplies both movie jobs and get-away cars.
Despite his brooding, sexy, loner ways, he falls hard for a single mother named Irene (Carey Mulligan). She raises her son Benecio (Kaden Leos) down the hall in the ratty apartment building The Driver calls home. All shy smiles and gentle grace, she embodies modern-day innocence and working-class pride. Just as a lovely friendship shows signs of turning into a romance, Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) comes home from prison.
An ordinary film would set up the love triangle with Standard as mean or abusive, but this movie uses his character to build complexity. The Driver respects him and his desire to make a clean start, respects the family unit enough to not want to violate it and cares enough for Irene to understand her need to support her husband.
If only a clean start were so easy. Standard’s past comes calling, catching The Driver in the sticky web of the Los Angeles mob scene. If he is to protect Irene and Benecio, he must give himself fully over to the violent world he has both exploited and shunned.
With this role, Gosling solidifies his certification as a bona fide movie star, able to pull off romantic leads as well as artsy action. His Driver is a man of few words, propelled from within by forces that, though only hinted at, are strong enough to power the movie. Mulligan, as always, is luminescent. She speaks volumes with her eyes and small smiles, filling the screen with meaning. Together, Gosling and Mulligan say almost nothing, but they connect in all those ways that run deeper than words.
Words do not matter much in the hands of a director like the Danish Refn. He packs silent moments full of noir emotion, more concerned with the solitary feel of driving Los Angeles by night, alone among millions, than with moving the story forward with dialogue. In his hands, emotion is shown not told, whether The Driver is tenderly carrying Benecio, racing a Mustang in a high-stakes chase or beating an enemy to death with a hammer.
The Driver doesn’t just use hammers. He shoots, punches, kicks and stabs through L.A.’s underworld, played in gritty detail by the likes of Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks and Christina Hendricks. The violence is cranked up to shocking levels, as when the camera lingers on The Driver as he kicks an enemy’s head into a pulp. Turns out, it takes a long time to do that and the camera doesn’t break away until the job is done. The violence is intense even though the gore is not shown on camera. For this reason and for incessant profanity from the bad guys, the movie earns every bit of its R rating. There is some nudity in the film but not much sexuality.
As a critic, I think of movies as appealing to either red-state or blue-state viewers depending on their level of irony and cynicism. For instance, “The Blind Side” is red-state while “American Beauty” is blue-state. The very best movies, however, transcend the divide and appeal to everyone for different reasons. “Drive,” with its slick cinematography, dark feel and excessive artsy violence feels blue-state, but its portrayal of the strong sacrificing for the innocent with no expectation of return feels red-state.
Most of the film’s charm comes from its Western-ish love story. Emotions are more powerful for being unspoken, romance more compelling for its tragic roadblocks. It’s a restrained love story in which a perfect moment immediately precedes a moment that may ruin everything. The outcome is by no means inevitable.
Like all great Western heroes, The Driver lets his violence proclaim his love, even though he knows the violence may be the very thing that separates him forever from the innocent woman he protects.
That’s the kind of conundrum that earns you a white hat.
Rebecca Cusey is a movie critic and entertainment reporter.