Out of the many startling elements in Drive -- the new Nicolas Winding Refn action-thriller about to startle audiences everywhere -- the most astonishing may be the movie's utterly invested effort to turn its leading man into a star. There are no real movie stars anymore, we've been told, only blockbuster spectacles that sell themselves, so it's elating to watch what Ryan Gosling does in this picture through the filter of Refn's awestruck lens. Gosling's coiled, laconic, unnamed "Driver" has antecedents stretching back to Sergio Leone spaghetti landscapes and wending through the urban thoroughfares of Walter Hill and Michael Mann: it's a hilariously pared-down performance, the funniest interpretation of macho-bullshit mystique I've ever seen, and the perfect antidote to every arm-flapping, brow-furrowing Leonardo DiCaprio performance of the last ten years. It's an extravagant joke, a magnetic man of few words in an age where everyone can't stop talking, and both Gosling and his director are in on it. All the same, there's something mythic and magical about this performance, this movie too.
Pauline Kael once compared the acting styles of Anthony Quinn and Cary Grant thusly: If you asked Quinn if he knew how to dance, he'd immediately jump up and prance around until you were sorry you asked; if you asked Grant, he'd merely smile and playfully drum his fingers on the table. That's similar to the economy of movement that Gosling achieves here -- whether he's courting his next-door-neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) or threatening local mob heavies Nino and Bernie (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks) -- with nothing more than a toothpick for a prop. (Okay, once a hammer.) A slightly more socially adjusted Travis Bickle, Driver's anger is roused only after a heist -- in which he is in the getaway car behind the wheel -- goes horribly wrong, Irene's paroled husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) ends up dead, and the new widow and her young son Benicio are next on the hit list. The two sides of the main character, lover and killer, are never convincingly reconciled; yet Refn achieves this union visually in one breathtaking scene in an elevator, where Gosling tenderly plants one on Mulligan in one moment and kicks an assassin to death in the next. Kiss, Kiss, Stomp, Stomp: Kael might have appreciated the duality.
The split personality of the movie itself -- from sweet character study to shocking bloodbath -- is problematic in a larger sense, by turns absorbing and alienating. From the quietly gripping prologue where Driver shows his knowledge of L.A. geography, Refn makes it clear that he knows how to stage an action scene; later on, he makes it more than clear that he knows how to stage a killing scene, and while the tonal shift is deliberate (like his protagonist, Refn never loses control) I'm not convinced that straight-razors, heads ripped off by shotgun blasts, and forks to the eye are playing to his strengths. Far more effective is a murder framed at a distance from the ocean surf, as well as a knife fight between a pair of shadows cast on concrete. The violence will be one of the selling points of Drive, and while I wouldn't say it's staged by a filmmaker who takes it lightly, it does come uncomfortably close to Tarantino's worst instincts to lure yahoos into the theater to get off on something they don't fully comprehend.
What other moviegoers will appreciate (other than Newton Thomas Sigel's stunning cinematography, the most shimmeringly beautiful depiction of Los Angeles since the Mann trifecta of Thief, Heat, and Collateral) is the movie's expansive regard for a stable of wonderful character actors. Besides Gosling's star-power and Mulligan's aching vulnerability, there is a deft comic turn from Bryan Cranston as Driver's shambling gimp mechanic and a diabolical one from Albert Brooks about which I'll say no more. I also liked how Oscar Isaac's ex-con hubby is initially set up as a hotheaded rival of Driver's, only to be revealed as a decent guy genuinely trying to go straight. Drive is at its best in scenes like the one where Standard tells the story of how he and Irene met, and at its worst in its shameful waste of Christina Hendricks as a blue-jeansed moll named Blanche. Anyone who's seen Hendricks on Mad Men knows that she's game for anything, so it's disappointing that her role is miniscule (however memorable her exit).
This is, as you may have ascertained, a polarizing movie, and it will be interesting to see whether the commercial, inviting aspects of the film draw a larger audience than the arty, off-putting elements repel. I'm sensing enough of the ground shifting beneath my feet to predict that Drive is going to make a profound impact on movie culture, be argued over into perpetuity, and start a fad for scorpion jackets. (I can't wait for scholars to dissect the outlandish, unsettling sequence where Gosling stalks a bad guy like a 1980s slasher in a stunt man's facial prosthetic to Riz Ortolani's florid "Oh My Love.") I'm not without reservations myself, yet a film with this much affection for actors and cinematic lore is hard to resist. And I was won over by the ending, as ambiguous as the fate of Travis Bickle, with a wounded Driver back in his car, seemingly disinterested in seeking medical attention, or perhaps already dead, destined to cruise the streets for infinity, his own gleaming Valhalla.