Drive. The title of the new film by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn bears an obvious but effective dual meaning. It refers both to the mysterious, unnamed protagonist (Ryan Gosling) who drives for a living, both in the movies as a stuntman, and at night as a getaway driver; but also the way he approaches those professions, the way he slowly but surely finds himself pursuing his pretty neighborh Irene (Carey Mulligan), and the way he goes about solving his problems when a seemingly simple situation blows up in his face.
What is most impressive about Drive, adapted by Hossein Amini from a book by James Sallis, is that on the page, the movie is actually not that remarkable. The opening sequence, in which Gosling ferries a group of robbers around downtown Los Angeles, is written like a more subtle opening to a Transporter movie, and the movie's story of a simple guy with simple rules that spiral out of control isn't exactly a revelation. What Drive has, and has in spades, is strength in execution, taking what could've just as easily been a piece of direct-to-video junk starring any washed-up C-lister and turning it into an arresting experience.
Gosling's role is a two-sided bit of business: the quieter he is in his daily life, suiting up for a car flip for a chase scene or taking Irene and her son out to drive around the aqueduct, the more it gets the viewer's attention when he finally speaks up, in short sentences, straight to the point. For the most part, the depth of his visible emotion is a slight curve to the edges of his mouth, or the sense that his neutral expression has cooled into concern, but at the same time, the gears never stop turning, assessing the situation and whoever it is he's speaking to. His performance also accentuates Mulligan's, which is equally quiet but much more emotionally open, allowing the audience to connect both with Irene, and to use Irene as a way into Gosling's character.
At the same time, Refn provides a ballet of artful visuals and shocking, extreme violence to give the film a color and flash that surrounds Gosling's work, all while exhibiting a perfect grasp of timing and tone. A handful of scenes in Drive are easily some of the most intense, suspenseful sequences of any film in 2011. The driving scenes are rife with quick cuts of action and long pauses of silent waiting, accentuating the experience of an actual escape, and later sequences use slow motion to provide both unforgettable shots and a sinking sensation of inevitability. In the third act, as the driver decides to take matters into his own hands, Refn injects some really bizarre, haunting imagery that might've come out of a David Lynch film rather than an action movie, and yet still finds time for more subtle notes. The way Refn defuses a tense moment in an elevator is a perfect moment, summing the movie up in a nutshell.
Gosling and Refn's combined efforts are already enough to make Drive into an impressive film, but the finishing touch is that the movie never cheats by adding "more" to a movie that thrives on its own economy. While other movies bend over backwards to create shocking backstories and complicated mythologies for their characters and stories, Drive is a streamlined, simple picture that aims to achieve a single goal and never takes its eye off the prize. Like the title character, director, and star, Drive moves forward with purpose and determination, and anything unnecessary is left in its wake.
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