By Colin Moore
It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it? Well, maybe not in the world we live in, but on screen you can’t help but wonder what’s cooking inside those strong silent types. And when it’ll explode.
Ryan Gosling is Driver, a mechanic and movie stunt driver by day who moonlights on the other side of the law driving getaway cars. His employer, garage owner Shannon (Bryan Cranston), supplies the vehicles. Driver is unnervingly good, as proven in the opening sequence where he provides transportation for a late-night heist. When the LAPD gives chase, the thieves sweat it out in the backseat while Driver evades patrol cars and helicopters with robotic precision. He’s intuitive, exacting and practically mute. But after befriending his neighbors, the adorable and bird-like Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Driver’s normally focused life takes some unpredictable turns. He falls for Irene and she for him. It’s confirmed with deep looks, art-house montage and an 80s-inspired soundtrack that vocalizes exactly what the characters are feeling. A possible romance hits the wall though when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Issac) is released from jail. He returns home, promising to make good on lost time but is immediately pressured into robbing a pawn shop to settle a prison debt. Or else. Out of concern for the family, Driver offers his services as the getaway driver. After Standard is killed and Driver double-crossed by the mob, much more.
”Drive” is one of those movies that gets under your skin from the word go and more or less stays there, vibrating. Or maybe “ticking” is more appropriate. There are few films that can pull this off this well and for this length of screen time. We all have our lists. ”Alien”, ”Deliverance” and last year’s ”The Experiment” would find their way on mine, but the tension in those films seemed to depend at least as much on the uneasy situation as on any uneasy character, toothless hillbilly or not. And so, give Gosling some credit. His performance as Driver is a remarkable combination of extremes – innocent, sweet, intense and finally ferocious when he goes toe to toe with the mob. Like Eastwood’s Man With No Name, his past is unknown and what we know of his present is limited only to what we see him do, not what we hear him say. Here lies the film’s real genius.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (”Bronson”, ”Valhalla Rising”) and screenwriter Hossein Amini are incredibly patient with their character (and perhaps too Drive author James Sallis, though I haven’t read the book). While film producers make dangerous stunt demands on Driver, while Shannon and Jewish mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) plan his NASCAR debut, while Irene melts into his heart, while everything that would shake some sign of life from you or I happens, Driver remains silent. In the entire film, he speaks no more than a paragraph or two worth of dialogue. This is powerful. Most of us have seen enough movies by now to know that the protagonist will eventually be challenged, then answer that challenge, fight or flight. Driver leaves no one guessing.
There’s a female contingent out there that swears by the dewey, heart-melting powers of ”The Notebook”, also starring Gosling. They’ve read the Nicolas Sparks book and own the DVD. They keep it in a dust jacket and play it as an initiation rite for prospective boyfriends (though we do the same with ”Star Wars”). I’d be curious to hear their reactions to Gosling’s Driver and to ”Drive”, whether it impresses more as ”Taxi Driver” or ”Fast and Furious”, whether its love story is as potent as the acton is violent, and whether those strong silent types will have any chance after this film.