- - Thursday, September 15, 2011

It’s hard to know precisely what to make of “Drive,” Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s dazzling, brutal neo-noir about a Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who drives getaway cars for criminals in his off-hours.

Beautiful yet horrifying, tender yet breathtakingly violent, emotionally gripping yet eerily stoic, it’s exciting, eclectic and electric. Even if you don’t know quite what to make of it, it’s worth seeing.

That’s not to say it’s always an easy movie to watch - and not just because of the occasional spasms of horrific violence.

Mr. Refn works as much in mood as in plot and character, and he successfully cultivates an air of unsettling mystery. Much of the dialogue is delivered in oddly timed rhythms, drained of all effect. Mr. Gosling’s stunt-driving protagonist is never named - the credits list his character simply as “Driver.” Many of the scenes exude a sense of unspoken malevolence, like an action movie directed by David Lynch.

The story is a blend of familiar crime- and action-movie tropes - heists, car chases and robberies gone wrong. A desperate mentor (Bryan Cranston) makes a deal with a refined old gangster pal named Bernie (Albert Brooks), who works with a less-refined partner (Ron Perlman). The driver meets a woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and steps in to help when her husband gets mixed up in bad business after a stint in jail. Things get progressively worse from there.

It’s not all sublimated menace, though. At other times, Mr. Refn gives the movie a breezy, dreamlike feel. The first third of the film is as much music video as movie, as Mr. Gosling’s blond, wispy-haired character falls for Irene, his equally blond, equally wispy apartment-building neighbor. Their instant, intense connection appears to be based on little more than staring longingly into each other’s eyes. They could watch each other all day, and Mr. Refn sometimes seems willing to let them. It’s like a heartfelt teen romance from the 1980s, with Mr. Gosling as the hunky heartthrob.

Indeed, “Drive” leans heavily on cinematic nostalgia and frequently plays like a coyly ironic satire on the contemporary action film - Jason Statham’s “Transporter” films are clearly reference points. But comparing the two is like comparing Maxim with the New York Review of Books. Mr. Statham’s thuggish lunk of a hero is every bit the simple-minded projection of the alpha male that he appears to be. Mr. Gosling’s quiet, gentle and occasionally brutally violent driver is, at heart, a deep, blond mystery.

Mr. Refn uses Mr. Gosling’s driver to toy with the action genre’s penchant for cinematic icons. Sometimes he is perfectly sweet and gentle - playing with children, carrying groceries. At other times, he is dashing and romantic - the picture of action-movie cool. And sometimes he is grotesquely violent. He is a cinematic myth, an instant archetype, and Mr. Refn seems to enjoy revealing how easy they are to create, manipulate and undermine.

You can never quite tell whether Mr. Refn is kidding, but it’s clear that he doesn’t lack for self-awareness. When we first meet Bernie, he explains that he “used to produce movies. Kind of like action films. Sexy stuff. One critic called it European.” It’s an accurate enough description of “Drive.” And if that sounds like something you might like, this film is well worth taking for a spin.

★★★★

TITLE: “Drive”

CREDITS: Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; written by Hossein Amini, based on a book by James Sallis

RATING: R for bursts of extremely graphic violence

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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