During his stellar 46-year career as an actor, two-time Academy Award winner Robert De Niro has created some truly memorable characters for the silver screen. Among these are Jake La Motta (“Raging Bull”), Max Cady (“Cape Fear”), Michael (“The Deer Hunter”), Vito Corleone (“The Godfather: Part II”), and Leonard Lowe (“Awakenings”).
But in my opinion, De Niro’s most fascinating role was that of Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” the intriguing 1976 film directed by Martin Scorcese. Bickle is a Viet Nam veteran teetering on the brink of insanity, and when he finally goes over the edge, he embarks upon a killing spree that still ranks as one of the bloodiest and most violent segments in the history of cinema.
Before morphing into the avenging angel for prostitutes and other lowlifes, Bickle is a soft-spoken loner who pretty much minds his own business. I mention him here because of his similarity to Driver, the main character portrayed by Ryan Gosling in “Drive,” a riveting new action thriller that begins slowly before ultimately exploding into an ultraviolent revenge story.
Driver is aptly named because he works as a part-time stunt driver in Hollywood, and he’s very good at what he does. But he supplements his income by serving as a getaway driver for various thieves in Los Angeles, and at the beginning of the film, he describes his conditions of hire for one of his clients.
“If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes, and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun. I drive.”
Driver has an agent named Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who obtains both legal and illegal jobs for him, but what he really wants Driver to do is enter the arena of competitive racing. Shannon needs funding for this venture, however, and he enlists the help of Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his buddy Nino (Ron Perlman).
But Driver seems to be satisfied with his lot in life, although he does agree to do a test drive so that Bernie can see how good he is on the track. Driver is a very soft-spoken guy, and he seems almost shy around other people, and this is especially evident when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), the attractive young woman who moves into the apartment next to him along with her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos).
He first meets Irene in the elevator, but then later he encounters her when she has some car trouble. One thing leads to another, and Driver soon begins taking Irene and her son places while her car is being repaired. Naturally the two of them are attracted to each other, but before the budding relationship can reach the bedroom, Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is paroled from prison for good behavior. When he arrives home, he’s not particularly happy to find Driver hanging around with his wife and son.
Now it seems that Standard received protection in prison by promising to pay some thugs upon his release, but when he can’t come up with the money, they beat him senseless. His only alternative is to agree to rob a pawnshop for them, and just to help out, Driver agrees to be the chauffeur of the getaway car. And without revealing much more, let’s just say that this leads Driver into an absolute mess that unleashes the violence raging within his calm exterior.
“Drive” is a beautifully acted and consistently entertaining action drama, but it definitely is not for the faint of heart because it becomes incredibly violent in its later stages. Driver is forced to defend Irene and himself against those who want to punish him for his part in Standard’s botched robbery attempt, and these scenes are shockingly brutal.
Gosling is a superb actor with a marvelous range, and his portrayal of the mild-mannered Driver, who turns into a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde is remarkable because of the ease with which he slides in and out of the diametrically opposed personas he must play. In the film’s production notes, Gosling offered a perceptive analysis of his character.
“I was really intrigued by the role of Driver because the performance demanded this very complex dramatic counterpoint. On the one hand, he’s really self-contained, really laconic. There’s an economy of movement in the way he carries himself, an economy of words in the way he speaks. He keeps his cards close to his chest and there’s an almost poker-faced inscrutability to his reactions. All of which ties into his character, because this is the kind of mechanical self-control he achieves in the flow-situation of driving.
“On the other hand, Driver is literally psychotic, you know? A Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver-kind of character. Beneath all of that eerie outward calm, there is this reservoir of raging energy and hair-trigger violence. It’s like when you’re cruising in an automobile and the ride feels so smooth, so stable, so safe—then another car crosses your path. BAM. All that energy, all that mass-times-velocity momentum, is released in a flash of physical violence. And that’s basically the character of Driver. He navigates around most obstacles with some very flawless trick-driving, literally and figuratively escaping without a scratch. But when the moment of impact unexpectedly arrives, it is violent, and it physically slams you. The challenge is making the audience feel that tightly-coiled energy when Driver is ticking along as smoothly as a stopwatch.”
Mulligan is nicely cast in the role of Irene, and she and Gosling have a perfect chemistry for this type of movie. Like Driver, the character of Irene speaks very softly and exhibits a charming diffidence toward other people. She obviously loves her son, and is just beginning to fall for Driver when her husband unexpectedly comes back into the picture, and this, of course, creates a major conflict in her life. In the production notes, Mulligan explained why she was drawn to the part.
“Irene’s character was a challenge because she’s really the pivot point for the film’s secondary plot, which is literally about the love triangle between her, Driver and Irene’s husband Standard but dramatically is about where they’ll all end up in the most meaningful sense. And it’s not an easy decision for her! Driver certainly seems like Irene’s knight in shining armor, but Standard is drawn very sympathetically, as someone who’s made mistakes but is genuinely trying to turn his life around. Plus she’s loved him since she was 17! So to be able to play those two impulses off of one another, especially after Standard and Driver form an uneasy alliance, gave me so much to work with.”
In addition to the superior acting, “Drive” offers several terrific action scenes that involve some amazingly impressive stunt driving. In fact, you barely have the chance to settle into your seat until you are taken on the ride of your life. And the chase scenes are particularly effective because of the stellar cinematography. At times you will think you are a passenger in the car, and you may find yourself hanging onto the arms of your seat for dear life.
Another thing I liked about this movie was the way that the tension builds slowly but steadily. Early on, you may find yourself wondering where the film is going, but Driver’s hidden personality begins to emerge, you definitely will be on the edge of your seat.
As I said earlier, however, those who are turned off by graphic violence, should avoid this film, which gets a solid eight. But if you can deal with the bloody action, make the trip to the theater to see it. I thought it was well worth the drive.