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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011 02:07 pm

Drive has more than fast cars

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Ryan Gosling as Driver.

A darling at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Nicolas Refn’s Drive comes stateside as a bit of an oddball that its distributor is selling short. On the surface, this appears to be a slick genre piece that features a cool hero, fast cars and little else. This is certainly how it’s being sold and the success of The Fast and the Furious franchise proves that American audiences need little else.

However, there’s something more at play here. Refn strips the movie’s action film conventions to the bone, giving us a tale of existential angst in which the main character is forced to come to terms with the true nature of his own identity.

Ryan Gosling, armed with perhaps 15 lines of dialogue and a sense of cool that will give you frostbite, is Driver (I told you it was barebones storytelling), a Hollywood stuntman and mechanic by day and getaway driver by night. The reason for this duality goes unexplained, though we surmise that these acts are simply an effort for Driver to feel something as he lives a life of self-imposed exile, tamping down any sense of feeling that might lead to his making any emotional connection. However, he lets his guard down when he meets the waifish Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, neighbors in his apartment building. First it’s helping with her broken down car, then it’s carrying her groceries, actions Driver comes to regret when her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison. Targeted by some mobsters he owes a debt to, the ex-con is being forced to pull off a robbery as a payback. After Irene is threatened, a misguided sense of chivalry causes Driver to play the White Knight and help Standard with the robbery, an act that goes horribly wrong and leaves our hero as a loose end in need of being tied up by a group of ruthless hoods.

Refn’s film is a brilliant stylistic exercise that revisits the cool aesthetic of ’80s action thrillers (The Driver, To Live and Die in L.A.) and he successfully puts his own distinctive stamp on this genre. Michael Mann’s Thief is the template here, but Drive proves to be a variation on the themes that the James Caan crime classic explored. Refn takes a minimalist approach, presenting a rather simple story bolstered by icy hues, cool sight lines and a sense of fatalism that makes for a modern film noir that takes no prisoners. Along the way, he utilizes all of the tropes of the era, including a slow-motion shootout, tightly constructed and genuinely exciting car chases and a Cliff Martinez soundtrack reminiscent of the work of Tangerine Dream. While the director has seemingly created a world in which all emotions are repressed, this proves misleading as the film proves to be shockingly violent at times, with the characters unable to keep their rage under control or deliberating harming others as a matter of course. The killings on display are shocking and not for the faint of heart. But they serve a purpose as they underscore the true nature that lurks beneath the civilized façade of these men.

Gosling’s approach to Driver, all icy exterior, replete with brooding and meaningful pauses, comes dangerously close to being a parody of Steve McQueen cool but he’s too good an actor to let things go that far. Instead, we get a nuanced performance of a tragic figure, a man so afraid to feel that he hides behind various masks in order to isolate himself in a world full of people longing to make a connection. Gosling’s performance is carefully calibrated and ultimately shocking as Driver’s guise eventually slips to reveal a violent man whose true self is too awful to contemplate.

While some may ultimately consider Drive as a derivative entertainment, what with its allusions to Bullet, Shane and the other aforementioned features, nothing could be further from the truth. Whereas Quentin Tarantino’s films have become nothing but a collection of trivia questions (“Which movie did Q.T. steal this scene from? How about this one?”), Refn delivers what appears to be a genre exercise but proves to be a bracing and engrossing examination of loneliness and redemption.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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