‘Drive’ movie review: Ryan Gosling in a dazzling retro synthwave throwback

I don’t get to say this often enough: I loved this movie. The stars aligned for Drive, which features a dynamite cast, wonderful cinematography and set design, note-perfect music, and an extremely talented director finally coming into his own through a gritty crime saga screenplay from a dime store paperback.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is something like an arthouse Tarantino; his work has always explicitly referenced earlier films, but unlike Tarantino’s beloved B-movie grindhouse, Refn has taken inspiration from the cinema gods: Bresson, Bergman, Scorsese, Lynch, and (especially) Kubrick.

Drive is Refn’s ode to late 1970s-early 80s testosterone, particularly Walter Hill (The Driver), Michael Mann (Thief, Miami Vice) and William Friedkin (To Live and Die in L.A.). I’m a sucker for those directors and their films, and I bit into this beautifully composed full-throttle throwback hook, line, and sinker. Your experience may vary.

Drive stars Ryan Gosling as the nameless Driver (already, a reference to the Hill film), a Hollywood stuntman and underpaid auto mechanic by day, and ultra-cool getaway driver by night. “You have me for five minutes,” he tells his partners in crime, referring to the amount of time he’ll wait for them. “Anything happens in those five minutes, and I’m yours.”

Driver is the classic cipher: he keeps everyone at arms’ length. That includes his mechanic boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who sets him up with other jobs, and has just brokered a deal with Jewish mafioso Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his partner Nino (Ron Perlman) that would put Driver behind the wheel of a race car. In his dealings with these characters, Driver is boyishly innocent, but there’s something far darker lurking underneath.

Driver also exudes innocence in his dealings with neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. He’s apprehensive about getting close to them, but can’t seem to help himself. When Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison and pressured into pulling off a robbery to repay old debts, Driver offers to help out – with disastrous results.

The performances are outstanding. Gosling has emerged as one of the best actors of his generation, not afraid to take chances in films like Lars and the Other Girl, and in Half Nelson, Blue Valentine, and now Drive, he’s given three of the most memorable performances in recent memory. Among the supporting roles, Brooks stands out, sinking his teeth into the slimy Bernie Rose and savoring each bite – where has he been the past decade? Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks has a small, but important, role.

While set (presumably) in present time, Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography perfectly captures that sleek 1980s L.A. atmosphere; he’s aided greatly by impeccable set design, lingering over elements like Driver’s scorpion-embroidered jacket. Things like this help the Danish filmmaker better capture Americana than most US films. Even the cursive neon pink titles feel just right.

Cliff Martinez’s excellent synthesizer-infused score recalls 1980s soundtracks by Tangerine Dream and Vangelis; there are also some perfectly-chosen songs sourced elsewhere, including Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx’s Night Call, which opens the film, and College’s A Real Hero, featuring Electric Youth, which closes it. This is my favorite soundtrack since Daft Punk’s work on TRON: Legacy last year.

I’ve admired Refn’s previous films – Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Fear X and the Pusher trilogy – more than I’ve actively enjoyed them. Not the case here: this is compelling, perfectly-composed and blisteringly entertaining stuff; given a concise, tightly-plotted script (Hossein Amini), from the novel by James Sallis, Refn works real wonders.

Drive won Refn the best director prize at Cannes this year, over the likes of Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) and Lars von Trier (Melancholia). Deservedly so.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.