Ryan Gosling is a getaway driver with a heart of gold in Drive, a movie that is lovely and bland.
Like a mashed potato mountain with a pool of butter at its zenith that turns out to be cold and pasty. Or those lovely wedding cakes that taste like chalk. Or molded chocolate or petite fours, both of which can look so inviting and taste like a candle.
Gosling’s character, who apparently doesn’t have a name, is a stunt car driver for the movies as well as a mechanic for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who owns a garage and helps get him movie work. He is also, with the help of gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), buying a race car for Gosling’s character to race professionally. And, it’s implied, Shannon has helped him in his other career as well — that of getaway driver.
As Gosling explains, he doesn’t carry a gun, he doesn’t get involved in planning and he isn’t in the scheme for the long haul. What he does is sit outside the site of a robbery or burglary and wait for exactly five minutes and then whoever is in the car gets a ride away from the scene.
Seeing Gosling’s character execute one of these jobs is a thing of crime-caper beauty. With the help of a police scanner he is able to stay a step ahead of the search for his car and he knows the city’s (Los Angeles) roadways, back alleys and likely high-traffic spots.
As you might expect, this kind of life doesn’t lend itself to a broad network of friends. Gosling is a keep-to-himself kinda guy. That is until he sees an opportunity to talk to Irene (Carey Mulligan), his neighbor. She and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos) become tentative friends with Gosling, with the trio spending a day together at the Los Angeles river and the grown-ups going out for a very chaste-seeming drive-around date.
The relationship seems like the quiet, shy beginning of something very sweet for both Irene and Gosling’s character and then Irene gets the news that her husband, Benicio’s father, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is coming home from jail.
At first, Standard is none to thrilled to hear about mommy’s new friend, the besotted next-door neighbor. But then it turns out that Standard has some secrets of his own. He is into some bad dudes for a lot of money and they want him to participate in a robbery, something he is not inclined to do. Enter Gosling’s character and his particular talent.
How lovely is this movie? So lovely that the presence and use of Christina Hendricks doesn’t even stand out. This movie is so stylish that its borderline too-much 1980s title font and synth-heavy soundtrack actually work. So lovely that it makes Los Angeles look both seedy and noir-ishly beautiful in that kind of overexposed way that L.A. can look. So lovely that Gosling’s weird puffy scorpion jacket looks cool even after it’s been soaked in blood and even when we get actual dialogue about the obvious subtext of the scorpion and its tendency to do what’s in its nature.
And, on top of all the pretty, Drive features in some very decent performances. Albert Brooks will likely — and deservedly — get all the attention here because his Bernie Rose weary thug is so different from the characters he usually plays (or, specifically, from that one character that he seems to write over and over again for himself). Cranston’s performance is also solid — if like me you never quite got into Breaking Bad, this movie makes you want to see more of his dramatic abilities. Even Ron Perlman, who shows up as a colleague of Bernie’s, does interesting things.
It’s all so wondrous in a way. Wondrous and dull.
This may be one of those cases where a bunch of good ingredients just don’t gel. But I think the style, the loveliness that makes Drive so interesting to look at also makes it kind of a flat story. You get the sense that so much effort was put into getting the look and the tone just so that the story itself was never really given a chance to shine. And Gosling’s character, at its center, always seems to be moving in slow motion — a factor that adds to the sense that what you’re watching is atmospherics more than a story. C+
Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn with a screenplay by Hossein Amini (from a book by James Sallis), Drive is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by FilmDistrict.