When Nicholas Winding Refn took the Best Director prize at Cannes back in May, his victory was considered something of a surprise. Amid a sea of names like Von Trier, Malick, and Almodovar, the Finnish director had come out on top, not only with the prize, but with one of the festival's best reviewed films. That title seems to have been well earned, because, despite its mundane premise, Drive is a stellar piece of filmmaking.
Ryan Gosling stars as Driver, a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver, until one particular job goes awry and things get complicated. On paper, it seems like a silly spin-off of the Fast and Furious franchise, which is already silly enough (albeit enjoyably so). But it's execution that matters, not the ideas on paper, and there's where Drive, thanks almost entirely to Mr. Refn, delivers in spades. Like Joe Wright's Hanna, Drive is something of an art-house action film, one that favors style over substance. And, like Wright's film, Refn's actually makes style over substance work in the best way possible.
Rather than fill the movie with endless car chases and noise, Drive's action scenes arise out of the plot (as opposed to the reverse, which is so common nowadays). They're well executed and stylish, but not so overly choreographed or over-the-top as to feel ludicrous. Refn, whose last film was the brutal and unsettling Bronson (2008) has toned down his flashier, fourth-wall-breaking impulses, yet the film is still immensely stylish. The script, by Hossein Amini (and adapted from James Sallis' novel), is light on dialogue, and truly acts as a skeleton. In different hands, the whole affair could have come off as empty, stiff, and bland. Refn and his cast, however, make sure that's not the case whatsoever.
Among the movie's many assets is Gosling as the nameless driver. The role, like the script, is little more than a skeleton, but the actor fills it out surprisingly well. At the offset, it's easy to be tricked into thinking that the performance is a lazy one. Quite the contrary; Gosling's portrayal is not necessarily complex or overly emotional, but his presence gives a strange sense of life to the role. In some scenes his eyes are almost hypnotic to watch (well, aside from the obvious reason), and one of his reaction shots after a moment of violence is excellent. We can connect with him, even though know almost nothing about him. Think of him as a nice version of No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh. Other roles are filled out nicely as well. Carey Mulligan and Oscar Isaac give nice turns as the driver's neighbors, the latter of whom has just been released from prison. Less successful are Ron Perlman and Mad Men's Christina Hendricks, although this is pretty much attributable to their limited screen time. In a movie with so little dialogue for certain roles, every second counts, and Perlman and Hendricks make it count, but there's not quite enough there for them to chew on. Albert Brooks, who has earned some whispers of Oscar buzz for his work, is effectively despicable as the film's eventual villain, but the real star of the supporting cast is Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, using his own limited time to create a surprisingly likable and sympathetic character.
The real star, however, is none of the people in front of the camera, but rather the man running the show; Mr. Refn himself. The characters may not have much in the way of depth, but Refn still allows us to spend plenty of time with them before the slide into violence. And once it hits its violent stride, Drive really takes off and makes its mark, mixing elements of crime dramas and 80s neo-noir. Like Bronson, some of Drive's images are graphically violent, but Refn refrains from shoving them in our faces. We'll get a quick glimpse or two, and then it's over, the editing and sound design taking over along with our imaginations. The violence also rises naturally out of the story, rather than for the sake of an overblown set piece.
Bolstered by excellent (albeit sometimes on-the-nose) soundtrack choices, and an atmospheric score from Cliff Martinez, Refn and DP Newton Thomas Sigel's images come vividly to life. The film make have the slightly washed out look of digital, but Refn and co. have made sure to fill the frame with enough color (including some hot-pink opening credits) to give the film a distinguishable look. Refn also knows how to use slow-motion effectively, to the point where the images captivate, rather than bore or become indulgent (are you listening, Zack Snyder?).
But how far can thin characters and style carry a film? If Drive and Hanna are any indications, then the answer is pretty damn far. Refn has made a film that uses its own understated sense of cool to lend the bone-dry script a sense of purpose. Drive has no deeper meaning, nor does it have a point to make; it's simply a story told well (and with more than a little panache). In a way, the style (some of which is its own restraint) almost is the substance, as nonsensical as that may seem. Rather that puff itself up into something bloated and over-the-top, Drive settles for the quiet, understated route, to become not only one of the best action films of the year, but one of the best, and certainly coolest, films of the year, period.