[Note: this review is spoiler-free but I would still encourage those who haven't yet seen the film to go into it as cold as possible.]
But then, maybe the invocation of Scorsese and De Niro was just that writer's way of getting in on the referential action. Refn, who says he modeled Bronson on Kenneth Anger films (there's a reference here, too) and Valhalla Rising on Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, here unloads a dump-truck of stylistic homages, from early Michael Mann to stripped-down car movies like Two-Lane Blacktop and The Driver to an overt reference to Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin. Hell, the most visible reference point, to my surprise, was that of Wong Kar-wai, particularly his devastating In the Mood for Love. For some, all these references will be a delight, a smorgasbord of retro cool gussied up further by the inexplicable (but fun) use of '80s synth music. For others, this is merely a sign of self-satisfied theft, a lazy repackaging of ideas. Either way, this fixation misses the true joy of Drive: watching Refn wring tension out nearly every moment, even doe-eyed, wistful stares of impossible love.
Drive's opening segment is the best I've seen in a film since the one-act play that launched Inglourious Basterds. With graceful and steady but desaturated and restless images, Refn shows the nameless Driver (Gosling) preparing and executing a job with formal fluidity. Economic editing and deliberate framing keeps our focus inside the Driver's car as he waits for the robbers who hired him to do their job. The sound design layers noises—a basketball game Driver listens to on the radio, the crackle of a police scanner, the blaring roar of an engine when Driver puts the pedal to the metal, etc.—to further ratchet up tension. Refn's judicious presentation extends to his handling of the car "chase," for want of a better word. It resembles more a game of hide-and-seek than some metal-screeching tear through city streets, with Driver losing one cop before stumbling into the searchlight of a chopper or stopping right in front of a patrol car. Refn understands suspense, and by inserting gulfs of space around a handful of thrilling, fast-edited punctuation marks, he generations enough tension and expectation to leave theater seats everywhere etched with the imprints of fingernails.
The rest of the film follows a similar approach to action, tightly handled, formalist bursts of blunt physicality amid an elegant but dark evocation of L.A.'s promises and pitfalls. The Driver is but the first stripped-down archetype. A few doors down from his apartment lives Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose perpetual cuteness is exacerbated by the young child she raises alone and given a faint sadness for the same reason. I say faint because Mulligan is, admittedly, the weak link of the film, never truly conveying much baggage beyond wisps of regret and the confusion caused by budding feelings for the Driver. Nevertheless, her cherubic giggle and empathetic face provide a nice contrast for Gosling's kind but vaguely troubled stares. If Gosling fills the shoes of the existentially bound hero, Mulligan plays her part as the woman who exists to complicate his feelings, but if she lacks any memorable presence, at least she awakens more humanity in the Driver than one can usually expect of such a taciturn protagonist, allowing him to project some form of humanity into a type stripped down to its most inhuman, objective elements, reconstructing a human being from a stereotype.
Other characters fare better with their archetypes. Oscar Isaac adds depth and conflict to Irene's fresh-out-of-prison husband that fills him with residual jealousy, fear, and genuine concern for his family. Bryan Cranston plays the Driver's mechanic and only friend (in a manner of speaking): Cranston handles the Driver's day and night jobs, getting him underpaid work as a stunt driver and gigs as a getaway man. Cranston's genial warmth, compounded by a sympathetic limp, make him so charming that when he confides to Irene that, as much as he idolizes the Driver's skills, he underpays the kid, she chuckles as if she's just been told a light anecdote. But Shannon's exploitation of the kid runs deeper, and soon he gets the kid caught up with the mob, visualized by the menace of Ron Perlman's gigantic head and steak-knife teeth and a revelatory, ingenious performance by Albert Brooks as a movie producer-cum-gangster.
Not even my self-imposed blackout could prevent hype for Brooks' performance from seeping through, and he lives up to the hype. With hair teetering on the boundary between tamed and wild and eyebrows that long ago went into Witness Protection, Brooks the brilliant, ironic comic looks like he doesn't have a funny bone in his body. He radiates such cold, horribly calm energy that when he fusses over the chopsticks with his Chinese order, one begins to fear he'll stab someone with them for not getting his order perfect. Though not as piercingly silent as Valhalla Rising, Drive still prefers to unfold with imagery instead of words, and Brooks seems to own most of the dialogue despite his handful of scenes, as if he lent out the remainder of the script to the rest of the cast. With interest, of course. Brooks doesn't overplay his hand, doesn't openly menace or even speechify despite how much chattier he is than the others. Refn's inspired casting brings out the cruel inverse of Brooks' deadpan style; as a comedian and filmmaker, Brooks follows premises to their ludicrous conclusions. He does the same here, only the endpoint is usually a corpse, which he views with exasperation. Both he and Perlman toy with the idea of Jews playing at being Italian mafiosos, but where Perlman growls about the discrimination, Brooks infuses the two ethnic types into something unwieldy and terrifying. Here is a man who will kill your whole family and make you feel guilty for taking up that 10 minutes of his time.
At some point, these separate lines begin to converge, elements of one plot bleeding into the other until everything is connected and you're not entirely sure how that came to be. As such, the film's distinct emotions of longing, fear and mounting anger crash together so each justifies and complicates the others. Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel handle these conflicting yet unified emotions ably, moving dextrously between abstracted shots inside the Driver's car where the lights outside always blur and expand, grim, fluorescent underworlds, and the calming but tense arrangement of floral pastels on the walls of the apartment complex that communicate longing and tragedy so well Gosling likely could have acted off the wallpaper as well as he did Mulligan.
This collision of styles and moods also allows for Refn to explore the space between his stylistic influences; in particular, Drive feels like the missing link between Michael Mann's nihilistic debut, Thief, and his more optimistic view of the same twisting L.A. streets seen here with Collateral. As I watched Refn flex his stylistic muscles whilst standing on the shoulders of giants for greater visibility, I thought of how much he had in common with the other great imitator of modern cinema, Quentin Tarantino. Both indulge in their ultraviolence—Drive features gore so intense it punches through the barrier to absurdity, not unlike Taraninto—but both also have the ability to find fluidity and tension among their quotations and action. Tarantino's films feel more action-packed than they usually are thanks to his command of dialogue and and direction. Refn, on the other hand, likes to let silence do the talking, using his similar grasp of film technique to make the build-up to visions of unorthodox gore more grueling and unbearable than bashed brains or slashed flesh. Watching Refn pile all this together made for the most thrilling experience I've had at the movies this year, and to dismiss its inventive hodgepodge of styles as nothing more than pastiche strikes me as akin to saying green is but a mash-up of yellow and blue.
P.S. Special mention must go to Cliff Martinez's retro electronic score, perhaps the strongest argument one could have for something in this film surpassing its influences. Martinez, who already put out one engaging soundtrack this year with his work on Contagion, here mixes old-school New Wave synths with the greater nuance afforded by modern electronica. Clearly using the film work of Tangerine Dream as a jumping-off point, Martinez finds emotional contours and chilly suggestion that Tangerine Dream never came close to mining, even as he also beats them at their own game of skittish, digitized paranoia. Having never been a big fan of electronic scores (with a few exceptions, of course), I'm surprised to find that my favorite soundtracks of the last two years have both been synthesized works, and while Martinez's '80s throwback isn't as obviously compatible with its host film as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' Social Network score was, he nevertheless carries a great deal of the film's mood and never flags. The handful of synthpop songs peppered among the score are demonically catchy as well.