Movie review: ‘Drive’

In theaters

“Drive,” written by Hossein Amini and James Sallis (book), directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, 100 minutes, rated R.

It’s easy for a movie (particularly generic action movies) to splatter its characters’ blood and brains all over the screen, saturating the audience with it until they’re numb to the violence. Nicolas Winding Refn takes a different route with “Drive,” sparing you the Novocaine of a hundred meaningless deaths. Instead, the director wants you to feel every slap, stomp and bullet, creating an experience that is as visceral and unshakable as his last film, “Valhalla Rising.”

At the center of this crimson-covered work of art is Ryan Gosling’s Driver (sometimes called The Kid), who divides his time between being a wheelman, a stunt driver and a mechanic. A little bit James Dean and a little bit Buddhist monk, he finds peace behind the wheel of a car.

Even under the most extreme duress (dangerous car flips, a game of Red Light, Green Light with the police), Driver keeps his composure, letting all of the anxiety rest on the shoulders of the audience.

That’s not to say that Driver is without emotion. He finds comfort in his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son. Irene’s husband, Standard, drives a wedge between them when he’s released from prison. He’s jealous of his new neighbor, but Standard needs Driver for one last robbery to pay off protection debt from prison. In an effort to keep Irene and her son safe, Driver accepts the job.

But the robbery goes awry, and Driver is left to pick up the pieces.

There’s a dormant rage that slowly comes to life in Driver, an enigmatic figure whose capabilities seem endless. When his focus is driving, he’s flawless. When his focus is killing, he’s relentless. It’s a brilliant turn for Gosling, who could easily make hundreds of millions off his good looks, but instead has opted to take an unconventional path.

It’s no wonder, then, that Gosling was drawn to Refn’s “Drive.” The subtly self-referential world the director creates is a surreal hybrid of retro actioners and the art films he has become known for. The ’80s-inspired score and scorpion racing jacket accent that, as does Refn’s distinct style and the over-the-top performances he pulls out of Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman. It goes against the rules of Hollywood. That this movie made it to multiplexes is a miracle.

As “Drive” comes to a close, Refn spirals into territory similar to that of David Lynch. Driver dons a mask from the set of one of his movies (strangely frightening), as he plunges into darker territory. Refn explores the character’s duality, and he also touches on the mind-bending relationship between real-life and fiction in Hollywood (see what I mean about Lynch’s inspiration?). It could drive a man mad if he thought about it for too long.

Like Refn’s previous work (perhaps even some of Gosling’s) “Drive” isn’t an easy movie to watch. Like the movie’s violence that hits you in the gut like a slug, Refn forces you to feel the experience of “Drive,” whether you like it or not.

Grade: A-

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