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CANNES — A spasmodically violent, creatively cast and off-center fast-cars-and-crime drama, Drive belongs to a rarified genre subset of stripped down, semi-arty and quasi-existentialist action films that includes Point Blank, Bullitt and The Driver. With Ryan Gosling ably incarnating a pent-up man of few words who goes to great lengths to make one positive gesture in a rotten world, Danish wunderkind Nicolas Winding Refn has fashioned an atmospheric and engaging glorified potboiler that nonetheless seems powered by a half-empty creative tank. Not the sort of film normally seen in the competition at Cannes, this moody and bloody entry should be promotable to good box office results from both discerning and popcorn audiences come September.
Never speaking unless absolutely necessary, Gosling’s unnamed Driver works doing movie stunts during the day and moonlights as a robbery getaway driver. The sharply executed opening sequence shows Driver’s complete mastery of Los Angeles streets, as well as his grace under pressure, as he threads his way through a net of police cars and helicopters to escape from a nocturnal warehouse break-in.
Drawn to an appealing neighbor in his near-downtown apartment building, Irene (Carey Mulligan), Driver does more talking with his eyes than with his mouth. An initial exchange between them sums up the semi-philosophical, borderline hilarious sort of dialogue that often finds its way into this kind of fare. Irene: “Whaddya’ do?” Driver: “I drive.”
We never learn much more about the man than that, but he quickly takes a strong interest in the welfare of this young woman, who has a cute young son (Kaden Leos) whose dad is in prison. At the same time, it appears that Driver’s professional fortunes might be improving, as his longtime boss and patron, gimpy-legged auto shop owner Shannon (Bryan Cranston) makes a deal with big-bucks investor Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) to back Driver as a stock car racer.
When Irene’s man, named Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released, he expresses regret over his former actions and genuine appreciation for his shot at a second chance. However, an unpaid debt, unknown links to Bernie’s vulgar criminal pal Nino (Ron Perlman), a botched robbery and deeply entrenched venality on several fronts pull Driver into a treacherous underworld that ultimately requires far more of him than his driving skill.
The lulls between set pieces tend to be quiet and moody, which dramatically offsets the efficiently executed car chases and the killings that mount up — and become increasing gory — as the bad deeds multiply. The downtime never threatens to become dull, not with this cast nor with Refn’s lively style and the wildly eclectic soundtrack that’s embedded in techno music but extends well beyond it.
All the same, Hossein Amini’s adaptation of James Sallis’ short novel feels more threadbare than bracingly terse; he’s clearly aspiring to the sort of spare muscularity in crime writing pioneered by Hemingway in The Killers and subsequently employed by many others. Amini simply doesn’t build enough subtext and layering beneath the surface of the characters and dialogue; the tough talk is simply not loaded the way it is in the best noirs, so the lack of resonance is manifest.
Possibly for the same reason, something analogous takes place visually as well. Refn, who has built himself a substantial following on the basis of such stylishly powerful works as the Pusher trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising, creates a strong imprint with his vision of a dark, seamy L.A. (Newton Thomas Sigel was the resourceful cinematographer), and the violence increasingly goes beyond what you expect. But there are no sequences here that thrill or absolutely kick butt in the maximum genre way (except for the creative manner some killings are done). The good stuff here is quite good, but it doesn’t reach the highest level.
So it’s a fun, if not exhilarating, ride, one sped along with the help of a wonderfully assembled cast. Gosling here makes a bid to enter the iconic ranks of tough, self-possessed American screen actors — Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin — who express themselves through actions rather than words. Sometimes (mostly around Irene), his Driver smiles too much, but Gosling assumes just the right posture of untroubled certainty in the driving scenes and summons unsuspected reserves when called upon for very rough stuff later on.
Mulligan, seen only in classy fare up to now, is a delightful choice as the sweet but bereft Irene, while Isaac invests his jailbird with unanticipated intelligence and sincerity. Christina Hendricks isn’t around for long but makes a strong impression as an accomplice in an ill-advised robbery. Cranston applies craggy color to his good-guy loser, while Perlman pushes the evil all the way. Most surprising of all, however, is Brooks, who is wonderful as a rich, reasonable-sounding gent who’s better than the others at hiding that he’s a total s.o.b.
Release: Sept. 16 (Film District)
Production: Marc Platt Prods., OddLot Entertainment, Bold Flms
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks, Kaden Leos
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenwriter: Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis
Producers: Marc Platt, Adam Siegel, John Palermo, Michael Litvak, Gigi Pritzker
Executive producers: William Lischak, Linda McDonough, David Lancaster, Gary Michael Walters, Jeffrey Stott
Director of photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production designer: Beth Mickle
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Editor: Matthew Newman
Music: Cliff Martinez
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