Having seen Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's previous two features, Bronson and Valhalla Rising, the idea of this very weird stylist tackling a "Hollywood" movie made me wonder: Would he sell out? Or would his blend of artful lighting, postmodernist deconstructions of tough guy antiheroes, and scenes of sudden, horrifically grisly violence survive his transition into mainstream American cinema? The answer is the latter, and woe to any average filmgoer who thinks he or she is about to see a typical studio action picture or a fun Ryan Gosling movie.
A stunt car driver by day and getaway driver at night, Gosling's nearly mute character has recently moved into a creepy LA apartment building and finds himself growing close to his neighbor (Carrie Mulligan), a young mother whose husband's release from prison propels the story in motion - even though this doesn't even happen until maybe halfway through the film. Refn never seems to care much for traditional story structure (even if this is the first film he hasn't also written himself), so this loose approach should come as no great surprise. Once the dominoes start falling, however, Drive becomes mostly a standard modern noir, with Gosling finding himself getting deeper and deeper into danger after a routine holdup - like all routine holdups - goes terribly wrong.
I enjoyed Drive, but I am skeptical about all the acclaim that critics are heaping upon it. I'm not yet sure if Refn is truly an important contemporary filmmaker or if his alternating quiet/bloody/quiet style is merely fashionable among cineastes. In other words, after seeing his three most recent films, I am not yet convinced that there is any great depth to his work, or if he has anything valuable to say. Obviously, Drive's incredibly hip cast - which also includes Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, and an Albert Brooks cast strongly against type - feels differently. In any event, it's an interesting look at the state of cinema in 2011, with Refn's intentionally off-putting mix of cheesy stylistics (including a couple of eurotrash pop songs and a pink '80s font for all the credits), startling gore, loving shots of the Los Angeles cityscape, and a Steve McQueen-channeling performance by Gosling that consistently skirts the edges of goofiness but never quite goes over the line.