By day, he's a stunt driver for the movies; by night, a getaway driver for crooks. Happily, we begin on his night shift, in the darkened streets of L.A, with a masterful opening sequence that accomplishes the near-impossible: Damned if it doesn't reinvent the car-chase cliché, not by tramping on the accelerator but by stomping on the brake. This is no antic-frantic affair; instead, it's a cerebral game of stop-and-go, hide-and-seek, as the director behind the camera handles things exactly like the guy behind the wheel – with a stylish mixture of cold calculation and cool aplomb.
That director is Nicolas Winding Refn, the Dane who established both his visual cred and his bloody-mindedness in the Pusher trilogy and Bronson. As for the wheelman, his sole name is Driver, which gives you an idea of where matters are heading – yep, toward that gruesome point where high style collides with pulp content. It's a fun ride, at least until the fun turns, well, funny – risibly so – but that's always a danger in this genre. Sometimes, minus any warning, our suspended disbelief just plummets with a laughable thud.
Early on, though, we've got Ryan Gosling to marvel at anew. His understated brand of acting, minimalist but magnetic, is perfect for the role. The laconic Driver is meant to be a cipher who, like the big-engine stock cars he admires, hides his roaring beast within a conventional exterior. That sub-textual tension has us intrigued, especially when he starts a polite flirtation with the pretty young mom (Carey Mulligan) living next door, the one whose imprisoned husband is slated for release. Soon enough, hubby appears and proves to be a hitherto loose cannon trying hard to tighten up, a sincere effort undermined by the fact that he's deep in hock to a couple of unforgiving mobsters.
His predicament kick-starts the plot, which sees Driver contributing his automotive skills to a pawn-shop heist. Cue the double crosses, the messy complications, the accumulating pile of bodies shot to the head, or stabbed in the heart, or, less elegantly, reduced by vigorous stomping to grape-hued mush. To this stage, Gosling's blue-eyed stare, Mulligan's conflicted sweetness, some splendidly creepy supporting work by Albert Brooks as the loquacious mob boss, and Refn's noir-in-colour panache have all combined to keep the dirty business humming smartly along.
Oops, then comes the collision, when too much style gets vanquished by too little content. For example, Driver's inner beast is sporadically present but never accounted for. In the absence of any motivation or back-story, Gosling is left to play him with a simple on-off switch – nice guy one second, grape-stomper the next (the laugh-out-loud moment). Refn counters by doing what visually talented directors always do in substantively bankrupt circumstances – cranking up the style-meter even higher, fortifying the violence with lyrical slow-mo borrowed from Peckinpah, or shadowy knife-fights copped from Welles. The result? Just more uninvited chuckles.
Still, let's be generous here. Drive is noirishly attractive until it stalls, and inadvertently amusing after. In other words, there's always something – this is a flick that does us right even when it goes wrong.
- Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
- Written by Hossein Amini
- Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks
- Classification: 18A