BRONSON, the only other film I’ve seen from director Nicolas Winding Refn, dazzled me by depicting its subject in purely cinematic terms, favoring magical realism and stylistic collage over a more traditional, been-there-done-that approach. My only problem with it was that Bronson himself remained far too opaque, a masked figure for our amusement rather than a real-life person (which he in fact was).

Initially, I had the same problem with Refn’s latest film, DRIVE. Ryan Gosling stars as an enigmatic loner who works as a mechanic and a Hollywood vehicular stunt man by day and a getaway driver for criminals after dark. He’s opaque to the point where he’s only referred to by name as “Driver”–we know virtually nothing else about his life, apart from his interactions with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor with a young son and an incarcerated husband. Even then, Gosling seems coolly blank, revealing next to nothing about himself as becomes a presence in their lives.

Fortunately, it’s none other than Gosling that saves the film from devolving into an empty, flashy exercise. By the midway point, it resonates that Gosling is meant to be a blank slate: whether a male companion and protector for Irene or a submissive getaway driver for crime boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, unlikely but effortlessly playing a heavy, and with dignity too!), he becomes who others want him to be. Although he speaks little, you can see perceptible shifts in persona via his facial expressions and body language.

However, following an alarming, tragic chain of events, his mask partially, temporarily slips. When you catch more than a glimpse of what’s underneath, it’s not pretty. For the film’s increasingly, brutally violent remainder, you’re left to compromise this ugliness with the subsequent masks (one of them quite literal) Gosling puts on. More so than the film’s beguiling, icy, retro-electronic score or ravishing visual palette, this interference between a constructed persona and one’s own essence gives DRIVE its lift. With Refn providing Gosling the perfect environment for his perfect cipher of a character, and with Gosling masterfully imbuing that character with just enough nuance to keep us guessing, the two men prove a director-actor match made in heaven.

Score (out of 10): 9

One Response to DRIVE

  1. CMrok93 says:

    I feel a little bit guilty saying that Drive needed more driving. When the action comes it is tense and artfully done without shying away from the extreme violence, but that all starts to go away as soon as the characters start talking, or sighing and looking at each other. Nice review.

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