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Of course he knows how to skip a stone. By the time Ryan Gosling's no-name stunt driver does just that – in a brief idyll set alongside the gummy waters of the L.A. reservoir, where he woos a young mom named Irene (Mulligan) and her son – I almost laughed from sheer helplessness. From writer Hossein Amini's keen characterization of this tender taciturn (pause for occasional primal rage) to director Nicolas Winding Refn's order to hold long and hold hard on his lead actor's luscious visage, there's just no resisting: The camera wants to fuck Ryan Gosling, all right, and you will, too.
A delectable mix of brooding arthouse and heist-gone-to-hell genre picture, Drive opens with an eye on the stuntman's night job: as getaway driver for anonymous crooks. He has a practiced spiel spelling out his personal code – "I don't sit in while you're running it down, I don't carry a gun: I drive" – and it's the most words strung together consecutively we'll hear from the tight-lipped driver. The drive goes a little wrong, nothing he can't handle, and it's an enjoyably tense tease of what's to come when things go a lot wrong.
Fairly early on, Drive ratchets up to something like controlled chaos – significantly more controlled than Refn's English-language breakthrough, the brilliantly brawling but only fragmentary Bronson. This is the first of the Danish director's many films, including the Pusher trilogy, that he didn't write or co-write. If anything, Hossein's script is too coherent, too single-purposed; one wishes for a little more of the dicey delirium of Refn's earlier work, especially in the overlong last act.
That last act may feel overlong because, by then, the cast has considerably thinned, and each actor's exit (typically in a grotesque wash of blood) is cause for lament. They're endlessly watchable, these character actors leaning in and luxuriating in their flamboyantly scripted parts like a La-Z-Boy. They all deserve singling out, from Albert Brooks' cool-as-a-cucumber mob boss (but whither his eyebrows, huh?) and Ron Perlman's meathead second lieutenant to Bryan Cranston's avuncular gimp and Christina Hendricks' long-striding sexpot in cheap denim.
Where they go big – beautifully, boisterously big – Gosling and Mulligan curl in, their love affair played out near wordlessly, in a sustained smolder set to a soundtrack that's a crush of heartsick electronica and a devastatingly well-placed spot of musica leggera. Hell, even the look of Drive's title card – a cursive scrawl the hot pink of discount-bin lipstick – feels like a come-on. I can't remember the last time I felt so seduced by a film.