Tuesday, October 4, 2011

'Drive' is stylish, but where's it headed?

A compelling Ryan Gosling needed a better movie.
Ryan Gosling is an actor who's capable of projecting an unsettling sense of stillness. Gosling's thin half-smile can be difficult to read, a mixture of beneficence and menace that easily could spring in either direction. Like many great movie actors, he excels at holding things back, which gives him a quality of wary intelligence, as if he senses things that might be beyond ordinary reach.

Watching Drive -- a thriller from director Nicolas Winding Refn -- I kept waiting for a movie to materialize around Gosling, who easily holds the screen as a Hollywood stunt driver who also drives getaway cars. As a getaway driver, he gives his clients five minutes of total commitment, and then ... well ... all bets are off.

As Refn's camera wanders across Los Angeles' seamy side, the screen fills with deftly executed visual gestures, but Refn's movie ultimately lacks the brash invigoration of breakthrough style or the heft of real substance.

As it turns out, Drive may be most notable for giving Albert Brooks, a very funny actor, an opportunity to play an evil character. Brooks brings a relaxed sense of amorality to a low-life criminal who offers to back Gosling's character's career as a racecar driver.

Gosling's character -- he's never named -- seems a pure movie creation, an increasingly ferocious avenger who becomes a protector for a vulnerable woman (Carey Mulligan) and her young son.

If you think of Drive as a darkly hued noir meditation, you may find some artsy kick in it. I wouldn't say Refn totally has stumbled, but he hasn't gotten Drive into a consistently credible gear, either.

As has been pointed out by other reviewers, the movie's opening sequences qualifies as its best, largely because Refn understands that skillful driving involves knowing when to slow down, as well as when to speed up. Despite such interesting touches and some shockingly explosive violence, Drive proves a letdown. Maybe it's too damn minimal for its own good.

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