"Drive" Review: Is Ryan Gosling A Star Now?

Ever since the buzz for "Drive" began, many people, myself included, have been wondering what this movie might mean Ryan Gosling's career. At 30 years old, Gosling is an Academy Award nominee, and twice a Golden Globe nominee. He's starred in many smaller budget "arthouse" type films, but has had no trouble crossing over into bigger budget pictures.

But it's been difficult to really place him as an actor -- and I mean that in a good way. From comedy, to drama, to action and even romance, it seems like the 30-year-old Canadian can do it all. While he's no doubt a household name, it would probably be fair to say that he hasn't really broken out and carved a name for himself in Hollywood, at least not in the way he probably deserves. In short, Gosling's a major star in the making. Considering how young he is, it may not be fair to make too many comparisons or use any hyperbole to express how good we think he might be. But the dude can act. He has a certain presence, an aura about him that creeps out in his pictures, and he's only beginning to hone his skills.

Earlier this week, I wondered out loud whether "Drive" could be for Ryan Gosling what "Taxi Driver" was for Robert De Niro in 1976 -- and to go a step further, for the director, Nicolas Winding Refn, versus what it was for Marty Scorsese. I know it's an easy comparison to make -- after all, both movies are about a guy who drives a vehicle for a living, wears an interesting jacket and ends up begrudgingly kicking some major ass by the time the dust settles. But the comparison goes much further than that. Both films are gritty, dark, near-arthouse projects with young leads on the verge of breaking out into mega-stardom, and relatively unknown directors. Both films are centered on a single, soft-spoken main characters. Hell, both films have Albert Brooks in supporting roles.

In a way, Gosling lives up to that hype in Drive, those expectations, those comparisons, giving the performance of his young career, as does Refn behind the camera. But in other ways, "Drive" felt a little underwhelming.

Based on a James Sallis novel of the same name, Drive is the tale of a nameless character (Gosling), who is a mechanic by day, Hollywood stunt guy on occasion, and getaway driver for heists by night. Naturally, things get complicated pretty quickly when a job goes wrong, and Gosling's character, simply referred to as "Driver", soon has to dig his way out a hole and exact his revenge, all the while keeping a young woman, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son safe.

Gosling is on the money with his performance. He doesn't have much dialogue to deal with, but the way he holds every line a little longer than he probably should, the way he looks at his co-stars, or even out onto the road or open space is borderline incredible. The tension in most scenes between Gosling and Mulligan especially could be cut with a knife, and Gosling's timing contributes greatly to that -- not to take anything away from his great co-stars, including Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and others.

Equal credit has to be given to Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish director making his American filmmaking debut, but who you might already know from the Tom Hardy-starring Bronson in 2008. Refn employs somewhat of a retro style to his work in Drive, both in the look of the film and the sound, and it definitely translates well on screen. From the font and color of the credits, to the mostly-synthpop sountrack (composed by Cliff Martinez, who also did great work on last week's Contagion), down to the general atmosphere of the film, you can tell that Refn is trying to recreate a different era with the film, a classic 80s Los Angeles heist film sort of feel. While Gosling may occasionally pick up a cellphone, you never see a computer the entire film, you barely ever see any technology or even guns at all. And that's definitely one of the strengths of the film, to rely so heavily on performance, atmosphere, tension, shedding the computers and technology that seem to plague films so greatly these days.

But that attention to atmosphere almost seems to turn to near-obsession for Refn. Everything down to the special effects seem retro-fied. The few violent, bloody action sequences go beyond gory, into the downright campy. The sound seemed torn out of an old Charles Bronson movie. But maybe more importantly, the script did seem a little behind the times as well.

Writer Hossein Amini does a brilliant job in the first two acts of the film, building tension and escalation to a Travis Bickle-like point of pure cathartic badassery, but I hate to say that he kind of ruins it all by presenting that moment of catharsis way too early in the film. Moreover, I'm not entirely convinced by the intentions that the writer tries to place onto Gosling's character -- almost as if he's trying to iconify him. At one point in the film, a popish track plays over Gosling driving, claiming that he is a human being, a hero. Maybe that's Amini's and Refn's version of irony, but from the opening scene of the film, we witness Gosling be the accessory to grand larsony, and eventually lose his shit and bust a few faces in (quite literally), and we're supposed to be believe that what he's doing is heroic? Again, maybe I'm missing something here in terms of the message they try to send, but it just comes off as sort of pretentious.

There's a truly great piece of art within the confines of this movie. The tension, the acting, the atmosphere, the retro feel, Refn, Gosling, and their cast and crew have presented a lot of elements that could have made "Drive" not only one of the better films of the year, but of the last several years. Unfortunately, awkward timing and pacing for its action sequences, questionable intent in the wring, and, in some instances, almost shoddy production values prevent it from reaching the level of a Taxi Driver. Maybe they're trying too hard to be like Scorsese's first great film. Or even worse, trying to be like Sergio Leonne's Man With No Name trilogy, Gosling playing a tough, no-nonsense hero who seldom ever says anything, unless it's with his firsts or a hammer.

But what really almost took me out of the film was the lackluster violence. I'm not one to say that a film like this needs explosions or too much gun play, but when Gosling's character does get into physical altercations, it can't be explained in any way other than it falls a little short.

That said, I have no qualms calling Drive a great film, and one that's definitely worth a watch. Now, whether this launches Gosling into superstardom as a top-level actor and a viable lead remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure. Gosling and Refn take what, on the surface, shouldn't be anything more than another action/driving/revenge flick and turn it into something special.

Drive gets an 8 out of 10.