One of the most critically acclaimed films of 2011, having been highly praised at the Cannes film festival where it screened, was Nicolas Winding Refn's grim action-drama Drive. Refn first made a name for himself in the mid-1990s in his native Denmark with hard-hitting poetic realism in films such as Bleeder and the Pusher trilogy. This, his first American film, ostensibly follows much the same formula. And Refn's hard-boiled style and wonderful mise-en-scene sets our hopes up as we slowly (very slowly) get to know an uncommunicative, seemingly shy mechanic and stunt/getaway driver (Ryan Gosling). The opening scene in which he provides getaway for two criminals is exhilarating, with crisp, realistic action. Unfortunately, there is little crisp about the rest of the story, which – stripped of Refn's style – feels like something out of a 1980s B-film starring for instance Charles Bronson, with cardboard archetypical bad guys and a clichéd, uninspired romantic subplot.
Still, the most disappointing aspect of Drive is our protagonist, who is flat, undeveloping and seems almost mentally challenged the few times he speaks. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying all film characters should be Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino types, but neither Refn or Gosling seems to have anything to communicate with the so-called "Driver" character – well, other than the fact that he becomes inexplicably ultra-violent and deadly now and again. Gosling's work here is disappointing. His typical underplayed, emotionless performing finally falls completely flat when he doesn't get any support from the script or the character relations. He has one fine scene in a motel room with Christina Hendricks. Other than that, he seems to hope than inaction works as a reaction. Reportedly, he and Carey Mulligan cut much of the dialogue between their characters in the script, because they felt the chemistry between them said it all. Mr. Refn: This is the type of situation actors have directors for.
I can see what the film tries to accomplish, but in addition to lacking quality in the writing department, the formula of a non-speaking man with no name forced into committing ultra-violent acts has in my opinion long since been used up. After all, Clint Eastwood is in his 80s and the aforementioned Charles Bronson passed away a few years ago. I'm very surprised that so many critics has allowed themselves to be blended by this banal story camouflaged as being artsy through some fine cinematography, a fresh soundtrack (by Cliff Martinez, who's having a great year), and by replacing decent narrative and dialogue with unrelenting takes of inanimate characters who seem to be pondering things that they never share with us.