“I’m a driver,” says Ryan Gosling in Drive, and he doesn’t need to say another word. With that simple utterance, Nicolas Winding Refn’s minimalist thriller defines its aesthetic—lean, efficient, and sharpened to the finest point. At a time when action films routinely pass off freneticness as excitement, Drive is a reminder of how powerful the genre can be when every shot and every line of dialogue has a purpose, deployed for maximum impact. Owing a debt to the Zen-like simplicity and nocturnal L.A. ambience of Walter Hill’s The Driver—which, in turn, took a page from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï—the film is little more than an exercise in style, but it’s dazzling and mythic, a testament to the fundamental appeal of fast cars, dangerous men, and tension that squeezes like a hand to the throat.
Based on a crime novel by James Sallis, a disciple of pulp writers like Jim Thompson and David Goodis, Drive squares nicely with Refn’s previous work, particularly the Pusher trilogy, which is about tough, low-level hoods who scrap their way through a narrowing set of choices. A man with no name, Gosling makes his skills apparent in the gripping opening sequence, in which he calmly navigates a getaway car through a dense web of cop cars and police helicopters. An all-purpose wheelman, Gosling also works as a Hollywood stuntman, a grease monkey, and a would-be stock-car racer, and his talent attracts the interest of a vicious local mob boss—played, in an inspired piece of casting, by Albert Brooks. When Gosling’s attraction to a young mother (Carey Mulligan) leads him to assist her ex-con husband in a heist, he runs afoul of the wrong people, and struggles to stay ahead of them.
Timed to the pulse of a Cliff Martinez score that recalls the Tangerine Dream soundtracks of the ’80s, Drive casts Gosling as a quiet, inscrutable mystery man whose actions do all the talking for him. Refn sees him as the consummate professional in the mold of a Michael Mann hero, but Sallis’ story, adapted by Hossein Amini, throws him into a situation where his dexterity and talent are met by overwhelming force and plain bad luck. The plotting involved in this titanic confrontation is dense, but made to seem elementary, and the major setpieces rip through the moody atmosphere like a thunderclap. It’s retro genre heaven.