He is called “Driver” on the wishful but forlorn principle that you only need to be what you do. He works in an auto repair shop in Los Angeles for a man named Shannon (Bryan Cranston), whose heavy limp bespeaks a bad history with the Mob. It is Shannon, acting as an amiable manager, who guides Driver into other jobs: doing stunts for movies; and driving the getaway car on serious robberies. Shannon has never met anyone as talented as Driver, which only means that Shannon has probably been too long in prison or the hospital to see the history of film noir where blank-faced actors have been reading too much French existentialism to learn their lines. He doesn’t know the seminal figure in this line of laconic grace, Alan Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967).
Ryan Gosling is Driver, and Gosling is one of the more unusual actors we have nowadays because he’s brave enough to give away so little in the way of character information, because he watches and listens, and because his gentle nature is unusually open to romance. So Driver’s compartmentalized professional anonymity is ruined when he sees a young woman, Irene (Carey Mulligan), who lives in his apartment building and nearly instantaneously determines she is the saint for whom he will behave with a self-destructive honor that might spring from the Arthurian legend.
The first half of Drive is good enough to make you heed A.O. Scott’s verdict that this is “the coolest movie around.” The first criminal job is brilliantly rendered in a way that teaches us how smart and nerve-free Driver is. The meeting with Irene (and the important adjunct, her young son, Benicio) is nearly silent, but an overwhelming chemistry builds between the adults. Gosling has done this before—in Blue Valentine and in The Notebook—and we are beginning to realize how rare Ms. Mulligan is. Though not a conventional beauty, she commands attention. Despite being English, she seems not just Angeleno but a wounded angel. Above all, she lets us in on so many unspoken thoughts. The Mom and the Driver are not a natural couple in life. Her husband is in prison, but he’s getting released in a week. Their bond is as much of a gesture to romantic fate as the way Driver drives—it’s obeying the machinery of noir as much as the young man is at peace with cars.
So as we’re getting through the first half of the picture, there’s time to appreciate that Drive is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, and it won him the directors’ prize at the most recent Cannes Film Festival. Refn is Danish, but he spent his childhood in New York, and he has made some expert, nasty pictures before—Bronson and Valhalla Rising. More than that, Drive is written by Hossein Amini, whose previous credits include excellent adaptations of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.
Amini, Refn, Gosling, and Mulligan are credentials—a lot of sophisticated horse-power under the hood—and for as long as it attempts to stay cool Drive is a riveting picture. Alas, it lets itself down. For as the plot gets tangled (and I cannot really spoil it because I never fully understood it), so the characters line up to be eliminated, but not in the subtle, original ways Refn brought to the film’s early car chases. Once the violence sets in, the most indispensable crew member is the guy delivering buckets of blood. It’s as if some producer (or group of producers) told the director that cool understatement and Bressonian restraint might tickle Cannes, but couldn’t we stick a fork in someone’s eye, couldn’t we really get into some blood and waste a lot of the talent?
The film obliges until not many of its lead actors are left alive, just as the ways of their going are hideously unexpected, cruel, and awash in the red stuff. I daresay the people behind the film would protest, look, this is the way the dirty world works, but Drive is as fanciful as a Roadrunner cartoon. What it had going for it was an uncanny and moving relationship between Gosling and Mulligan, and they would have every right to feel betrayed by the blood splash and the sudden discovery that Driver can turn very punitive. There is a scene in an elevator—a kissing scene and then a brutal stomping—that is characteristic, and reflective of the film’s arty ambition and indifference to suffering.
I don’t think I’m being squeamish, and I don’t intend to deny the excitement of violence. But on screen, brutality can be as stylized as dance. I don’t believe that directors like Refn, Scorsese, or Tarantino really know and live with such violence. I think they are protected softies, aroused by the fantasy of beautiful violence—like me, like so many of us. But I mistrust the macho swagger when the violence is ladled on like tomato sauce. Don’t use the infamous Jean-Luc Godard excuse—that the blood is merely red. The blood is life splashing in our face and it’s the commercial exploitation of cruelty done in the guise of a very “cool” movie.
The height of this search for toxic glamour is the sight and sound of Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman going through the motions of imitating your most chatty movie hoods rather in the way Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon impersonate actors in The Trip. It’s sad to see Brooks doing this. It’s not that he lets the film down, but he has spent his life attempting intelligent and humane comedies. This has never quite worked commercially, and I’m sure he needed a job at sixty-four. But he ought to know he’s getting away with murder.
As for Refn, he is loaded with skill, just like Driver, but where is his car going? Years ago, another European came to Los Angeles to do noir—John Boorman with Point Blank (1967)—and Boorman made us see the city with fresh eyes. Refn does that, too, but he never grasps the parable of professionalism redeemed by experience that drove Boorman.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.