Goddamn, Drive is one slick piece of filmmaking. And director Nicolas Winding Refn makes sure that you appreciate this in every scene, whether he’s showcasing a bravura freeway chase or a low-key elevator meet cute. (I found myself getting annoyed by his shtick more than once, and I enjoyed the picture.) Drive may careen from delicious moments of cinematic self-assurance to scenes that ooze with unbecoming self-satisfaction, but it is never boring and it’s always compulsively watchable.
Ryan Gosling is Drive’s taciturn protagonist, a never-named Hollywood studio stunt artist who moonlights as a getaway driver-for-hire to the underworld. He’s introduced to us in the latter persona, calmly helping a couple of raggedy-ass holdup men elude the varied resources of the Los Angeles Police Department with skill and efficiency. This choice of opener is a tip-off to his essential nature, an in-your-face clue that’s artfully obscured by the subsequent introductions of the driver’s other selves: kindly neighbor, shy suitor, diligent craftsman. The speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick action hero is as old as the movies, but credit Gosling for bringing an old-fashioned, almost prim moral dimension to the type—well, as much of a morality as is possible in a hoodlum capable of stomping a man to death in a public place, and in front of a loved one.
Still, it’s hard to tell who the star of the picture is. Gosling is on screenconstantly, but director Refn (who also made the cult favorite Bronson, with Tom Hardy) never wants the audience to forget that someone—an angry, sarcastic god?—is telling this story. When it works—in the car chases, a pawn-shop robbery, in the various scenes with Albert Brooks as a charming, terrifying gangster—it’s terrific. When it doesn’t—which is in most of the romantic scenes with Gosling and Carey Mulligan, who perpetually looks as if she was just dropped on her head—the film is arch and annoying.
Refn has a great eye for casting, with choice parts going to Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman. It’s Gosling who has to carry this bloody tale on his back, however, and Refn who leads him places you might not expect. Which makes Drive worth the ride.