Grit, Glamour & Ryan Gosling: Drive Reviewed

Ryan Gosling continues his dominance of this autumn's box office with a gritty tale of a Hollywood stuntman turned get-away driver... and if that doesn't have you convinced, the director swore at Bill Turnbull on the BBC.
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80's? Don't know where you got that idea from.

Ryan Gosling. Ladies will know him from ultimate love story and reliable tear-jerker The Notebook, and men will know him from dull as dishwater and predictably tragic The Notebook.

But he’s back now, and is brandishing no less than two films for us to gorge on in the coming weeks. The first is a part-crazy, part-stupid love story, ingeniously titled Crazy Stupid Love, where he plays a professional bachelor come tolerable douchebag alongside Steve Carrel. In the other, he plays someone completely different.

Referred to simply as ‘Driver’, and giving away very little else of himself, Gosling’s character is a one-man masterclass on how to portray, and to an extent direct, an anti-hero. Introduced to us as little more than a blank page, going automotively through life from point A to point B, without any major distractions like socialising, or even minor ones like decorating his apartment. Literally and figuratively, he just drives.

I’ll get onto the specifics of this in a little while, but without a past or future of his own, it’s left to those of other people to enter the picture and disrupt his present. Fitting really that Drive is essentially the story of one man attempting to navigate his way down roads that other people have laid in front of him.

As drive’s go, it’s also a pretty scenic one. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, a man equally as famous for swearing on BBC Breakfast as he is for the brilliant Bronson (which, incidentally, did for Tom Hardy what Drive might well do for Ryan Gosling) has made the film’s Los Angeles backdrop an integral piece of the puzzle in itself.

Set distinctively in the modern age, Refn flexes virtually all his cinematic muscles in painting a neon-glossed, ultra slick and unashamedly 80s sandbox to play in. From the gloriously panned overhead shots of the city, right down the ludicrously pink font that bookends proceedings, the film manges to strike just the right balance between establishing its own unique feel, a gleaming pulp-noir, and giving a nodding homage to those that have come before it. Mercifully though, the style doesn’t override the substance.

Set distinctively in the modern age, Refn flexes virtually all his cinematic muscles in painting a neon-glossed, ultra slick and unashamedly 80s sandbox to play in.

Ryan Gosling will probably take all the plaudits here. His portrayal of a character who evolves from sedate, shy, unimposing boy next door, to frantic, desperate, even borderline psychotic insurrectionist, is remarkable – even more so when you take into account that this is a part relatively light on the dialogue. He doesn’t do a lot in this film, but what he does is exceptional.
Of course, you can’t have a lead star get away with a role like this unless his supporting cast are willing to come out of the pack and supply the repartee. Ron Pearlman, who you probably won’t recognise as Hellboy, and Albert Brooks, who at some stage you’ll realise voiced Scorpio in The Simpsons, are both excellent in their portrayals of mob-bosses, bringing a very palatable human touch and fallibility to roles that are normally generic and two-dimensional. Oh, and in case you’re wondering lads, Christina Hendricks is good, but only in it for about 10 minutes.

The really interesting thing about Drive though, is that it actually does.

Starting out firmly in neutral, we’re painted a picture of a man who has etched out the simplest of lives driving cars. Sometimes he drives for the movies, sometimes he drives for criminals, it’s all much of a muchness to him. It’s an edgy but stationary start, and the handbrake doesn’t really begin to come off the plot until we’re introduced to his neighbour, the emotionally tough, but circumstantially vulnerable, Irene.

As the moderate grit and glamour both take a back seat to the burgeoning romance between the two, there’s a very obvious gear shift in both pace and tone. There’s a distinctive squirming in the seats as you sense the film upping the stakes for a protagonist who, mere moments ago depicted as this glacial, introverted recluse, suddenly has something to lose. If anything, the cosy reprieve of this section of the film is actually the hardest to watch, purely because of how glaring the fragility of their circumstances is.

Without giving away too much, things then head down a progressively rougher path as various collusions, conspiracies and coincidences all wade in with first divisive, then explosive consequences. Each chicane in the story is met by those on screen, and indeed the director off it, going up through the gears and pushing things on further towards an astonishingly violent crescendo.
The only problem is though, that the more Refn squeezes the accelerator, the less control he has on the wheel.

By the time we move into the latter parts of the film, we’re hurtling so quickly, and with so little sense of where we’re going, that the very film itself starts to rattle its bolts loose and fall apart at the seams. The cerebral tone, brilliant as it is at the beginning, just can’t take being dragged along at this velocity, and the suspension of disbelief required for the closing developments is a little too much to ask.

That said though, as cinematic experiences go, watching both the director and the cast relentlessly quicken the pace is a sight to behold. The story may lose its way, and arguably not know when to stop, but from the inside of the car, with all its failings smudging into a blur outside the windows, you probably won’t even notice.

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