“Drive” is a movie about sexy people and cars. Or maybe it’s a movie about movies about sexy people and cars. Or maybe not cars, per se, but the experience of being in them, with sexy people.
As such, it is ridiculous, but differently ridiculous than you might expect: neither all that fast nor especially furious. Oh sure, there is some grisly gun violence, and a car chase or two, and it does get rather stabby in the end. But the prevailing tone is one of affected composure.
Now, this is not a film for the Henry James crowd, if there even is such a thing as a Henry James crowd, and probably no one will see “Drive” because it was scripted by Hossein Amini, heretofore best known for adapting “The Wings of the Dove.” Certainly there is such a thing as an ultraviolence-and-shallow-style crowd, and some people will see “Drive” because it was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, heretofore best known for making “Bronson.” But most people will see “Drive” to see Ryan Gosling drive.
A “wheelman,” in the parlance of commentators trying to sound worldlier than those who spend their lives watching movies about sexy people and cars, Gosling’s nameless protagonist chews toothpicks and commands attention. By day, he’s a mechanic and occasional Hollywood stunt driver; by night, a freelance getaway artist. At all hours he is sexy. Laconic, self-possessed, movie-hero-like. Actually, he doesn’t even chew the toothpicks. Just rests them in his pretty mouth.
Gosling’s gift for slick machismo is unparalleled. He’s like an exotic hair product favored by expensive salons for its non-greasy feel. It’s a little embarrassing to find yourself making the investment, but very hard, once you’ve had him, to go back to regular drugstore shampoo. More to the heart of the matter, his fortitude, which here derives from great timing, is undeniable. When you want to try the neat trick of using stillness to keep your movie moving, he’s the guy to call.
At one point the driver’s hapless boss and father figure, played by Bryan Cranston, says, “You put this kid behind the wheel, there’s nothing he can’t do.” And it doesn’t matter that the dialogue is dumb and meaningless because it also seems so true. Later the driver’s neighbor, played by Carey Mulligan, makes eyes at him, and he at her, and they hold the camera’s attention in a way it wants to be held. Soon enough, like some greeting card fantasy of a sensitive beefcake, he’s gently throwing her young son over his shoulder and carrying the sleepy tot to bed, in slow motion. Retro synth-pop swells up on the soundtrack and she’s done for.
Then her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, gets out of prison, and things gets a little tense. But it’s nothing a few well-built movie clichés can’t take care of. These include the One Last Job, and the Heist Gone Wrong, and they involve Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, thugging it up and enjoying themselves. Eventually “Mad Men”’s Christina Hendricks wanders in, as if expecting not a part in a movie so much as a cross-promotional opportunity for some glossy magazine spread.
This all suits Refn, a Dane, who would like to remind us that he was born with the sort of detachedly Euro-arty sensibility that others might kill for. Especially in the most “Miami Vice”-ish moments, as “Drive” delves deep into its neon-lit night of the soul, you can imagine Michael Mann stoically seething with envy.
Other frames of reference also apply. “We wanted to make a violent John Hughes movie,” Gosling himself has said. “Take that cotton candy and throw blood on it.” Hey, why not?
The movie continues being differently ridiculous. Gosling gets more slo-mo gallantry to work with, like love, and head-stomping, in an elevator. Amini gets some credit for having adapted a novel, by James Sallis this time, in a way that doesn’t seem at all bookish. And Refn, the ever-sincere sensualist, quietly gets off on it all.
Just look how straight-facedly he lingers on his pink cursive credits; or the embroidered scorpion on the back of Gosling’s jacket; or a musical sendoff from College and Electric Youth, branding this deadly dreamboat, with breathy reverence, as “a real human being, and a real hero.” Totally fake, of course. But just look.