Like its lead character, Drive doesn’t seem to fit in. While it’s set in present day Los Angeles, it wants to live in the 1980s. Its protagonist, an unnamed man called “Driver” (Ryan Gosling) doesn’t seem to exist in the real world either. He fails to understand real relationships, barely says a word, and has an almost irritating sense of self-righteousness. He’s like a superhero. He even works part-time as a stunt car driver for movies!
He begins the film doing something akin to Jason Statham’s character in the Transporter series: Being a getaway driver for criminals. He has rules (the criminals have five minutes where he’ll help them, and if they’re not in his car by that time, he’s gone), and after an opening action scene, we see that he’s an incredibly talented driver. He evades police with ease, he knows the ins and outs of the city, and he can even park without facing forward or paying much attention at all. Driving simply comes naturally to him.
Interacting with his fellow human beings, on the other hand, does not. He’s a polite person, but doesn’t seem to posses the ability to empathize or even understand other people. Perhaps he just doesn’t care. He makes “friends,” if you can call it that, with his apartment neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). There’s a clear attraction between the two, and Irene really seems to like him, but she’s married and her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is actually just about to be released from prison. After he’s out, Standard and Driver actually become friends as well, largely because Driver doesn’t want to cause a problem and seems to genuinely care about Irene and her son, even if he doesn’t understand them.
Well, it turns out that husband owes some people some money, so Driver decides to help him out to protect the family. The heist goes wrong, husband gets shot, and Driver ends up with $1 million. He’s now involved in a battle with gang members (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks), risking his life and as well as Irene’s and Benicio’s, all because he wanted to help the family get out of debt. And this, my friends, is why you don’t want to get involved with gang members. They will find you, they will find the people you care about, and unless you’re willing to crush their faces in with your boot, they will not stop. So the movies have taught me.
Luckily for us, and for the innocent characters, Driver is just this sort of person. After a long series of character building moments, what we get are a bunch of brutal action scenes involving gangsters and Driver. It almost gets cartoonish in the way that some of these scenes play out. There’s so much blood that you begin to suspect that Drive wants you to laugh. But considering how grim its protagonist is, you can’t. And you’re also very involved and engaged with what’s taking place, even though the lead is not particularly engaging on an emotional level and you’ve seen this type of plot before.
It’s something about the ambiguity of the character and the way that he’s presented to us. At surface value, he’s the type of strong-but-silent protagonist that we’ve seen before, but when you begin to wonder just why he does everything he does in this film, you begin to find him more intriguing. Ryan Gosling’s performance certainly helps, especially in certain scenes where he gives the character the exact amount of insecurity that he requires — something that you don’t necessarily notice at first, but realize that not everything’s all right.
And there’s also the style that the film is given. The director is Nicolas Winding Refn, and he gives the film a unique style not often seen these days. It calls back to earlier times, right down to the hot pink font used for the title and opening credits. There are certain scenes containing no dialogue whatsoever, and even a couple that might not necessarily have happened the way that we see. The elevator scene in particular, which has the lights dim right near the beginning, has parts that may either be exaggerated or completely fantasy.
This is a film that doesn’t leave your mind easily after you finish watching it. It plays for only 100 minutes, but feels much shorter, even with the long takes of, well, nothing. These types of shots work because your mind has already been engaged, wondering just what happened and why at any given moment. And when the scenes with actors show up, they’re great as well, largely due to the great supporting cast including an astounding turn by Albert Brooks as the main bad guy, and good work from Perlman, Mulligan, and Bryan Cranston (as Driver’s mechanic boss as well as agent).
Drive is a film unlike many that you’ll see in this day and age. It’s also a lot smarter than you’ll initially give it credit for, which is always a plus. While it has long stretches where not much goes on — those expecting a pure action film will leave disappointed — the third act is very crazy, and the performances are solid throughout. This is a film that’s difficult to get out of your head, and is one of those movies that everyone should see, whether you’re in the target audience or not. It might just surprise you.