In “Drive,” the hypnotic new thriller from “Valhalla Rising” director Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling remains preternaturally calm even as he stomps a mobster’s flunky to a bloody pulp.
Rarely does his voice rise above a whisper, much less betray any emotion. He is the essence of cool, breaking a sweat only when his passions boil over in short, shocking outbursts. We all go a little mad sometimes.
Who is he? And how does he stay two steps ahead of the game when the game is rigged and he is playing from behind? Neither Refn nor Gosling cares to reveal much about their hero, a nameless stunt-car driver who runs odd jobs for petty criminals. To rob him of his mystery would render him mortal.
In fact, he is more myth than man, a guardian angel run amok in the seediest shadows of Hollywood’s underworld. “Drive” stares into the cesspool and finds disillusionment and greed staring back — a desperate ex-convict (Oscar Isaac) forced to steal to protect his family, a ruthless gangster (Ron Perlman) risking his life (and taking several in the process) to salvage some measure of self-respect.
The Driver, as he’s known, touches them both along the way, forever journeying to a destination unknown. With no past to speak of and a future very much in doubt, his time in L.A. seems as temporary as his bare-bones apartment; the only question is whether he will leave on his own terms or in a box.
If the Driver’s friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) has his way, he’ll clean up at the car track, betting money on his inscrutable pal and splitting the winnings. But dreams have no place in Refn’s cold, neon-lit universe, and neither does Shannon, a luckless schemer who should have learned not to swim among sharks.
However sordid his past, Gosling’s silent, Steve McQueen-inspired hard guy knows the cutthroat world around him without being of it. Violence comes naturally to him, yet nearly always unsought. He’d rather spend time with his pretty neighbor (Carey Mulligan), but the quiet life is surely not his.
Volumes can be read into Gosling’s sly smirk, and the subtle body language he uses to define the Driver as well as any dialogue could. He is the perfect complement to Refn’s brilliantly seductive pulp fiction, in which the best-laid plans invariably unravel and the only way to survive the world is to embrace its darkness.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac
Written by Hossein Amini
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes