When the lights came up at the end of Drive, my hands were still shaking, and the knot in the pit of my stomach had yet to untie itself. I can’t remember — honestly — the last time I was so utterly engaged with a thriller, so wowed by an action film, so seduced by a brand-new universe. Nicolas Refn’s slim, tight, riveting ride is just about perfect, from the glistening world of a broken Los Angeles as seen through Euro-pop lenses to the frenetic, awe-inspiring chase scenes that reinvigorate the genre. What makes the film work is Refn’s confidence in his ability to do more with less. Modern action films so often seem content to do the opposite: They’re titanic, massively constructed objects that achieve so much less with so much more because they trade away story for a series of exhausting sequences designed to force you into feeling a kind of confusion that the filmmakers hope will translate as excitement. You are asked to trick yourself into thinking you had a good time, or at least that you saw something coherent. Yet Refn knows that catharsis only comes after tension, and that true suspense requires devotion and patience. He’s a master at making little moments count for everything, and by dialing the action down to human levels, he makes it that much more amazing. A single slap becomes a shocking act of violence; a gunshot sounds like a cannon blast; a car chase turns the world on its end. Refn knows just how to grab you, and for every one of Drive’s 100 glorious minutes, he doesn’t let go.
But Refn’s film isn’t just one of the best action stories in years. It’s also a fantastically observed film about deception and appearances, and what it means to find yourself actively rooting for someone to do something very bad. The central character, the Driver (Ryan Gosling), feels a kindness and loyalty to those he cares about, but he’s also a criminal who can effortlessly and instantly transform into someone with the ability to threaten, fight, or kill an enemy. He’s neither wholly good or wholly bad; rather, he’s making those choices at every instant. Drive is basically an existential heist movie that deftly blends action and suspense with the very real struggle to decide what kind of life you want to lead. It’s a thriller with brains, a drama with muscle, and absolutely amazing from start to finish.
The Driver is a wheelman for hire who serves the thieves of greater Los Angeles with an autistic calm. He doesn’t panic or worry; he doesn’t fret or foam; he just moves through the city with graceful skill. He doesn’t talk much, even to people he likes, like Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who employs the Driver at his garage and repair shop and also outfits him with cars for jobs. The Driver’s not an idiot, nor is he condescending. He just doesn’t have much to say. He’s a creature of action and emotion, and Refn gets more miles out of Gosling’s half-smiles than he could from pages of dialogue. The script from Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis, was additionally stripped down and tweaked by Refn, often in the course of shooting. Cranston recently said that Refn met with the principal cast before production and had them pitch out ideas for scenes and character beats, many of which ended up in the script and on the screen because Refn “wanted that collaboration.” As a result, the Driver’s simplicity doesn’t feel like a tic, or (worse) a half-hearted attempt at symbolism. It’s just a natural part of his character that speaks to who he is and how he sees the world.
But as always happens, what starts out simple gets complicated. The Driver finds himself drawn to his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), though their halting attempts at a relationship falter when Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), gets out of prison. Standard still owes a lot of bad men some money, so the Driver gets involved and tries to help. In part it’s because he’s still devoted to Irene, but it’s also because this is something he knows how to do. The film deals almost entirely with the Driver’s attempts to help Standard and then escape the inevitable blowback.
It’s a simple story, but Refn doesn’t need a complicated one. He’s working on an instinctual level, as much at home with impressionistic montages and operatic song cues as he is with the pulsing action sequences that anchor the film. The gorgeous photography from Newton Thomas Sigel gives the nighttime scenes a crisp beauty that turns Los Angeles into an alien city, and the Driver himself is often bathed in dusky pinks and ripe greens as he makes his way through the silent streets. There’s a wonderful pop vibe to the film, thanks in large part to Cliff Martinez’s electronic score and the synth-heavy songs that recall the slippery polish of the 1980s. Refn picks and places songs with care, and he knows how to marry sound and image to create virtuosic moments of vengeance, anger, and redemption. It’s no accident that the lyrics to one repeated song talk about being “a real hero and a human being.” The Driver spends the film trying to figure out how to be both.
Gosling is mesmerizing as the wheelman with no name. He excels at playing men wrestling to keep their inner demons from manifesting themselves as chaotic external forces — the Jewish Neo-Nazi of The Believer, the drug-addled teacher of Half Nelson, the emotionally crippled lonely heart of Lars and the Real Girl — and he’s absolutely perfect as a simple man trying to do what he thinks is right. Gosling can pull the steel over his eyes in a heartbeat and then go back to being a misunderstood sweetie before anyone knows what happened. He’s backed by a fantastic cast, too. Cranston is warm but warped, while Mulligan is sweet without being naïve. Albert Brooks has a killer turn as a Bernie Rose, a local kingpin working with Cranston’s character, and it’s chilling to see him so believably deliver death threats. Bernie and the Driver are the twin hearts of the film, both capable of going to excess to take care of business. There’s a great moment when the characters meet and Refn acknowledges their true natures: Demurring from a handshake, the Driver says, “My hands are a little dirty,” to which Bernie replies with a shrug, “So are mine.” There’s not a wasted word, frame, or actor to be found.
It’s fitting, in a way, that Refn’s film is about a driver, when the experience of watching it is a lot like taking a ride. I wrote earlier about the film’s intoxicating blend of head and heart, of brains and brawn, but that’s only a fraction of its appeal. Refn is able to communicate very specific emotional states and transition between them quickly, which requires the viewer to relinquish a certain amount of control in order for the film to take them where Refn wants them to go. It’s not uncommon for Drive to move from action to romance to dark humor to awful violence in one fluid and dazzling motion, and that degree of emotional specificity is almost stomach-churning in an age when action films come coated with three layers of irony. You have to, in a sense, let Refn do the driving here. He’s made a gripping, moving, heart-stopping, revelatory thriller, and as he moves fast through the turns and floors the gas, you never want him to stop.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.