Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carrey Mulligan, and Ron Perlman
MPAA: R – For Strong Brutal Bloody Violence, Language, And Some Nudity]
Drive is a rare kind of miracle. It is an action movie that works because of atmosphere and mood. Does it have good action? Yes. Does it have kick-ass car chases in it? Of course. Are the performances any good? Abso-fucking-lutely. But Drive is a director’s movie, and director Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson and the Pusher trilogy) directs the SHIT out of it.
Drive is the story of the enigmatic hero simply known as The Driver (Ryan Gosling) who works as a burger flipper…okay that wasn’t funny, yeah he’s obviously a driver. By day, he’s a stunt driver. By night, he’s a getaway driver. While there may be a discernible difference in how he’s driving, who he’s driving for, and why he’s driving between day and night, all that really matters is that he drives, and that is it.
He ends up falling head-over-heels by his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who is going through difficulties raising her son Benicio alone while his husband (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. He makes a bond with Irene and Benicio, takes them out for rides across Los Angeles, and begins to find meaning in his life other than driving.
This all goes to shit when Irene’s husband is released from prison, which doesn’t go the way you expect, but still does end up causing a lot of trouble. Due to circumstances I will leave unspoiled (Though, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve probably already been spoiled enough), Driver gets a contract on his head after a heist gone awry, which could potentially bring harm to Irene and Benicio. The Driver will do everything in his power to protect them both.
The Driver is a strange character. In today’s age, most films have been trying to bring complexity to their protagonists, sometimes successfully (Iron Man, Spider-Man), sometimes disastrously (Terminator: Salvation, The Green Hornet), yet the Driver is a refreshing throwback of classic heroes.
He has no backstory, no family, no real name, no real friends with the exception of Bryan Cranston as a repairman for all his cars, and he hardly ever seems to have any emotions. All he does is…drive. That is his sole purpose, that is all he was born to do, and he does it well. He’s a hero of a different kind. He’s the embodiment of the Western tradition of the Man With No Name.
This gives Ryan Gosling a difficult job as the Driver. One false move and he could make the Driver as bland and forgettable a protagonist as humanly possible, but he doesn’t. Gosling brings all his leading-man charisma into the back-burner, and instead replaces it with an air of mystery and stoicism.
Paradoxically, by showing as little emotion as possible, the Driver becomes a more interesting and compelling character. He is a distant figure in the distance to look up to, defined only by his actions and his behavior. This makes the rare instances in which he does exhibit some emotion, all the more powerful. One of the posters bears the tagline “Some heroes are real”, and that’s the best way to describe the Driver. A hero from a storybook that’s leapt out into the modern world, and taken the form of a getaway driver.
Another thing that helps by having a minimalist protagonist is that he gets to be surrounded by some well-rounded supporting characters. The entire cast is terrific. Carrey Mulligan is sweet as always, Oscar Isaac successfully redeems himself from the wreckage of Sucker Punch, Bryan Cranston’s voice is still as sexy as ever, Albert Brooks takes on a darker than expected role, and Ron Perlman is at his Ron Perlman-iest.
As if that wasn’t enough, the directing is pretty much some of the best direction you’ll see all year. Nicolas Winding Refn incorporates the film with a slight touch of surrealism that heightens the existential mood of the film. The way he shoots Los Angeles reminded me highly of the way David Lynch did so in Mulholland Dr., with a strange, dream-like quality that you can’t seem to put your finger on, with a strong emphasis on the city lights shining in the distance.
The sound design heightens this strange atmosphere as well. Cars whoosh past Ryan Gosling in an almost zen-like fashion whenever he’s behind the wheel, and Cliff Martinez’s score is one of the best scores of the year this side of the Chemical Brothers’ accomplishment with Hanna. Heavily ’80s inspired electro-tunes thump in the background and evocatively hum like the car engines that feature prominently in the film.
It’s like we’re fully immersed into the mindset of the Driver’s driving-obsessed mind. He lives behind the wheel, and as such, even when he isn’t in a car, we feel like we’re still behind the wheel, whether it be a pleasant Sunday drive, or a tension-filled getaway.
So far, I’ve said a lot about the mood and feel of the film, but let’s make one thing clear: Drive is still an action movie, and as such, there are still action sequences for the mainstream audiences to latch onto. And boy do they kick ass. The car chases are phenomenally well-done, tightly edited and coherently shot, and they are all choreographed exceptionally. Because we have an understanding of the characters, and because of the heightened mood of surrealism, there is some real tension while the car chases and shootouts come into play.
Also, this movie is fucking violent. It’s brutal, bloody, and inventive in its ways of dispatching people. One sequence that takes place in a motel room had my jaw on the floor. After coming out of the disappointingly bland Straw Dogs, I was surprised to learn that this week’s action movie has more gore and more tension than this week’s horror offering.
And I must say, I can definitely see Drive as a potential classic. It is full of imagery that feels iconic, and it has a feel to it that feels unlike any other film I’ve seen. Hell, if alpha-male douchebags begin wearing Ryan Gosling’s scorpion jacket, I wouldn’t mind. That jacket feels iconic, and it would be nice to see douchebags worshipping a movie that’s actually good after having to hear the dumbest audience cheer at the stupidest moments of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
It’s a unique blend of arthouse and action, which is a rare combination that we’ve been getting more of lately. The trend seemed to have started with the George Clooney vehicle The American, a film that I really like, but most audiences hated because it leaned more towards the art-house side than the action side. Then Joe Wright’s Hanna released, another one of the best films of 2011, which was more successful because it leaned more towards the action side rather than the art-house side.
Drive however, doesn’t need to lean more towards one over the other to work. It’s the first art-house action film that deftly balances art-house and action sensibilities into a satisfying package, allowing for a movie that anybody can enjoy, from cinephiles to mainstream auds.
Final Verdict: Believe the hype. Drive is one of the best movies of the year, and it’s certainly in my top 5, let alone my top 3. It has a striking mood and imagery to complement it, a captivating performance from Ryan Gosling, and some of the best action you’ll see all year. Terrible pun incoming: Drive to your theaters immediately for this one.
That is all. See ya next time, now if you’ll excuse me, I’m not going to post the trailer this time because it literally spoils almost the whole movie. Seriously, don’t watch it. Bye!