"Brutal men in desperate situations are Nicolas Winding Refn's stock and trade," begins Nick Schager, "a preoccupation that continues with Drive, the story of a nameless Hollywood stuntman and auto-mechanic (Ryan Gosling) who spends his evenings working as a wheelman for heists set up by boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Like many of Refn's prior protagonists, Gosling's Driver is a lone wolf with a volatile streak, though in this case, he's less an embodiment of barely contained masculine rage than a neo-noir cool customer (toothpick in mouth, puffy silver jacket embroidered with a giant red scorpion on its back) in the mold of Alain Delon's Le Samouraï crook or James Caan's titular Thief."
"The plot could nearly be inscribed on the head of a pin," suggests the Voice's J Hoberman. "A chivalrous loner participates in an armed robbery to help out the woman he loves; the deal turns out to be a setup, and the body count explodes. As amply demonstrated by the Pusher trilogy (1996–2005) and Bronson (2008), Refn is primarily a stylist, and this tale of a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a hired wheelman (or is it vice versa?) and gets played for a patsy is a lovingly assembled, streamlined pastiche of 80s movies and TV. The most obvious reference is Walter Hill's schematic action flick The Driver: This 1978 paean to professional cool in the person of Ryan O'Neal more or less provides Drive's title, premise, uninflected antihero, and minimalist existentialism, as well as its two-dimensional attitude."
"Drive is somber, slick and earnest, and also a prisoner of its own emptiness, substituting moods for emotions and borrowed style for real audacity," argues AO Scott in the New York Times. "This is not to say that the movie is bad — as I have suggested, the skill and polish are hard to dispute — but rather that it is, for all its bravado, timid and conventional. In the hands of great filmmakers (like Mr Eastwood and Mr Godard, to stick with relevant examples) genre can be a bridge between familiar narrative structures and new insights about how people interact and behave. Those are precisely what Drive is missing, in spite of some intriguingly nuanced performances."
At some middle-ish point in the film, Driver "is asked by his auto-shop boss to drive home customer and Driver's neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her little boy," writes Robert Koehler in Cinema Scope. "En route, Driver takes a surprising detour from the street down to the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, one of the city's most iconic images, a grand public-works project born out of vast and tragic flooding the city endured generations ago." A bit further in:
The typical deployment of the Los Angeles River in cinema is as a symbol of dead ends, final stops, the place where the city dies, and people along with it. Not so for Refn, for whom Los Angeles is a new city, a place of discovery. Viewed from the majestic prospect of a high angle in long-shot widescreen, Driver stops at the place where the concrete river ends and gives way to the wild river, a startling image even for native Angelenos. He knows these kinds of places, having driven everywhere (so, in reality, does Gosling, who knows the city expertly and drove Refn around town as research, inspiration, and preparation). Refn understands those many places in Los Angeles that make it fairly unique, and reverses the usual clichéd knock on the place as one long paved sprawl. Constantly, the paved cityscape surrenders to the natural world, sidewalks dissolve into dirt trails, roads simply stop, buildings reach their limit when faced with cliffsides, massive chaparral, impregnable mountain ranges that cut through the metropolitan area. Driver leads mother and son to the wild river for a Tom Sawyer afternoon under the sun, a Southern California utopia — the ultimate getaway — an idyll that defines Drive and Driver in fundamental ways.
Tom Shone: "The other major activities in this film, apart from executing hand-brake u-turns, are a) staring at a moody Ryan Gosling, b) being stared at moodily by Ryan Gosling, and c) staring moodily at Ryan Gosling while he takes you in staring at him, moodily. Boy is this film in love with its star."
"Gosling shows only one thing at one time." Farran Nehme: "When he's mooning after Irene, that's all he's doing. His blue eyes swim and whatever ruthlessness, torment, demons or scorpions he'd been trying to show are drowned. That's a big problem for a movie that depends on its main character's capacity for violence. Where there's no coil, you don't believe the spring. Albert Brooks, whose performance as a producer gone psychopath is as good as you've heard, gets that in a way Gosling doesn't. He's scary just ordering Chinese food."
"There will be those who'll say they liked this movie better when it was Thief, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï, Walter Hill's The Driver, or any very good Hong Kong action thriller," concedes the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "But Refn's version produces a similar high. A friend who hated Drive complained that it's a European telling us what he thinks American movies are: Kiss kiss bang bang. I see her point. We do more than kiss and bang. But this is just a genre Europe — okay, the French — used to excel at and no longer do. Refn won the director's prize at Cannes in May, and France's enthusiasm suggests what they're missing from their movies. Meanwhile, Drive confirms that the smooth, blunt Refn is exactly what's been missing from ours."
More from Jaime M Christley (Slant, 3/4), AA Dowd (Time Out Chicago, 4/5), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3.5/4), David Edelstein (New York), Steve Erickson (Gay City News), Glenn Heath Jr (SanDiego.com), Erik Henriksen (Stranger), Robert Horton (Herald), Kimberley Jones (Austin Chronicle, 4/5), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 3/5), Jonathan Kiefer (Faster Times), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 5/5), Matt Singer (IFC), Dana Stevens (Slate), Henry Stewart (L), Scott Tobias (AV Club, A), Scott Weinberg (Twitch), Jessica Winter (Time) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 9.5/10).
Interviews and profiles. Refn: Miriam Bale (L), Canfield (Twitch), Durga Chew-Bose (Interview), Steve Dollar (GreenCine Daily), Stephen Garrett (TONY), Brandon Harris (Filmmaker), Glenn Heath Jr (Slant), Guy Lodge (In Contention), Mark Olsen (Vulture), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Catherine Shoard (Guardian), Matt Singer (IFC), Scott Tobias (AV Club) and Steven Zeitchik (Los Angeles Times). Gosling: Chris Kompanek (AV Club), Dennis Lim (NYT), Tom Shone (Telegraph) and Jada Yuan (New York). Brooks: Aaron Hillis (Voice), Karina Longworth (LA Weekly) and Steven Zeitchik (LAT). Plus, the New Yorker's Richard Brody has a few thoughts on what makes Brooks tick. Update, 9/17: More from Richard Brody: How Brooks convinced Refn he was the right guy to play the heavy.
Related reads here in the Notebook: Daniel Kasman's review, the Cannes roundup and a Daily Briefing with links to stories on all the films Refn and his cast hope to make together.
Update, 9/17: "Brooks's [Bernie] Rose," proposes Michael J Anderson, "extends the film's late Carter, early Reagan-era reference point both within the diegetic world of the film itself — he claims to have produced film actioners in the 1980s that one critic identified as European, not unlike the Dane Refn's twinned primary generic sources Hill and the Mann of Thief (1981) — and certainly extra-diegetically in the presence of that era's superlative comedic director Brooks. Refn as such remains remarkably loyal and thorough in his reformulation of his preferred generic moment, an era that he seems intent on (and capable of) reviving single-handedly as that period replays itself economically and socially in the early 2010s."
Updates, 9/20: The New Yorker's Richard Brody: "I agree with Anthony Lane that the protagonist of Drive (which he reviews in the magazine this week) is 'not so much a rounded character as a card in a game of style.' But that style is one with the film's substance — and that unity is the film's main virtue."
Watching Drive, Trevor Link "found it helpful to consider the ideas advanced in Gilles Deleuze's book Masochism: An Intepretation of Coldness and Cruelty and especially Gaylyn Studlar's pioneering essay 'Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema.' The latter essay notably advances the study of film beyond the orthodox understanding of the relationship between subject and object in cinema, between the viewer and what is being seen, which was set forth in Laura Mulvey's 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.' Mulvey's essay is a landmark, but it is also highly constricting in the way that it identifies the cinema as primarily masculine and sadistic. Studlar's article describes the importance of moving beyond this perspective, positing ways of understanding the multitude of ways both men and women view cinema: 'The "masochistic model" rejects a stance has has emphasized the phallic phase and the pleasure of control or mastery and therefore offers an alternative to strict Freudian models that have proven to be a dead end for feminist-psychoanalytic theory.' This alternative, 'pregenital' interpretation of the pleasures of cinema is important because not only does it create space for understanding how women view film but it also goes beyond 'control' and 'mastery,' which (it should be obvious) are dead-ends for anyone who sees the cinema as potentially progressive and liberating. One can only imagine how we would be forced to see, and inevitably repudiate, a film like the hyperviolent Drive if we had no models for understanding our relationship to the film, as viewers, than the orthodox 'sadistic' interpretation."