Movie Review: Drive

Posted on September 21, 2011. Filed under: Movie Reviews | Tags: , |

There’s one scene in Drive that says it all. Our nameless and often silent hero, Driver (Ryan Gosling), is escorting his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) downstairs in their apartment building’s elevator, when suddenly the Driver notices that the elevator’s third passenger is carrying a gun. This man is there to hurt them, and the Driver is most certainly willing to try and hurt him too, faster and harder if it means saving Irene. But the Driver also knows that by dispatching this assailant, and effectively saving the life of the woman he loves, he will also be forced to do horrible, brutal things in front of Irene that will cause her to never want to see him again. So – in one fluid motion – the Driver turns around and embraces Irene in a one last kiss, a gesture so unexpectedly tender and passionate that the elevator lighting changes, and time seems to literally slow to a crawl around them. And just when we’ve been hypnotized by this moment of abrupt beauty, thinking it may well last forever, time starts again, and the Driver swings around, almost instantly and brutally pulverizing the attacker’s head into a bloody mess. That’s Drive.

On the surface, the plot of Drive may resemble that of a generic Reagan-era action picture – boy meets girl, boy meets girl’s ex-con husband fresh out of prison, boy agrees to heist to ensure that the mob doesn’t touch ex-con’s family, and all hell breaks loose accordingly. Yet both Drive and director Nicolas Winding Refn are acutely aware of this, and take that genre familiarity as a chance to both subvert expectations, and reflect on Hollywood mythos. Our getaway driver of a protagonist is also a big screen stuntman, filling in for the hero by day, while becoming the hero himself (with no small thanks to his own pseudo-superhero uniform – comprised of driving gloves and a white satin jacket with a scorpion on the back) at night. Irene’s criminal husband (Oscar Isaac) may be a sleazy low-level thug, but he never becomes abusive, contrary to what the audience might expect from such an archetype. Even the heavy, the ornery but pragmatic gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), is also a failed movie producer who helped make a couple of action flicks back in the 1980s. “Some critics even called [my movies] European. They were shit,” Rose reflects, in a moment that seems to preemptively give voice to the film’s detractors.

Those same detractors (who I am most certainly not one of) must at least concede that Drive is an immaculately crafted film, as well it is. Newton Thomas Siegel’s lens captures every seedy pocket and beautiful alcove of Los Angeles with alternating alien glow and warm gloss, and the effect is stunning, perhaps even rivaling his excellent work in 1999’s Three Kings. Cliff Martinez’ foreboding, excellent synth-heavy score provides a powerful counterpoint the soundtrack’s perfectly utilized pop music, which transcends a similar level of 80s kitsch to become something remarkable. The songs that Refn blares during carefully chosen points of the film act like a Greek chorus, with the lyrics emphasizing all of the feelings our characters choose to leave unsaid. This music isn’t manipulating the audience emotionally, but it’s a vessel for the characters’ emotions, and that’s an important distinction.

There are a number of cinematic signifiers which can be found in the framework of Drive – the calculated coldness of a Kubrick effort, the character-driven eccentricity of a Coen Brothers film, the constant atmospheric unease of a David Lynch picture, and of course, the detached machismo of a Michael Mann production, just off the top of my head. Gosling has called the film a “John Hughes movie with a head smashing.” Yet it is a testament to Refn’s assured, utterly precise direction that the film utilizes and name-checks all of these influences, while feeling as unique as it does. In many ways, Refn’s control behind the camera resembles the ultimate rampage of the Driver himself: both men act in a manner which is swift, confident, appropriately brutal, and not without a taste for the ostentatious, when called upon. The effect is intoxicating, as Refn turns rundown locations like a crappy strip mall pizza joint and a over-lit strip club dressing room into mythic plateaus of vengeance, while never losing sight of their ironic luster. While the conclusion may be old news to fans of Refn’s earlier films – the Pusher trilogy, Bronson, Valhalla Rising – the man has one hell of an eye, if nothing else.

But he knows how to cast a movie too, and this is where Drive really roars to life. There’s not a bad performance on screen, and the film is spilling open with colorful, delightfully bizarre supporting turns, from Ron Perlman as the shortsighted Jewish goomba who dreams of being Italian, to Bryan Cranston as the luckless, motor-mouthed cripple who serves as the Driver’s surrogate father figure. All of these turns revolve around Gosling’s largely non-verbal performance, where he hints at years of burning, inarticulate fury with a single unblinking stare. We never are given any idea as to how the Driver arrived in this world, or how he became so well equipped as a killer when the moment requires it. With Gosling’s performance, we don’t ever need it. The Driver simply is, and Gosling’s trembling, hammer-clenched fist tells us all we need to know about the man in the moment.

Carey Mulligan also does some fine work as the Driver’s neighbor and love interest, and with the possible exception of An Education, no one has ever used her inherent innocence as well as Refn does here to tragic effect. Yet special attention must be paid to Brooks – yes, that Albert Brooks – who turns in an utterly terrifying performance that makes you wonder how you’ll ever watch Defending Your Life the same way again. His Bernie Rose is the definition of a mundane monster, an evil man who doesn’t seem to particularly relish violence, yet will nonetheless never hesitate to spill blood. He’ll slash your wrist with a straight razor without batting an eye, but comfort you in his arms while you bleed out, reminding you that the worst part is over. Brooks milks years of frustration, rage, and weariness out of this reluctant boogieman, and as a huge fan of his directorial efforts, it’s the sort of performance that makes you reevaluate his entire career. He’s that good here.

Drive is many things: a gore-laden romance, a swooning revenge thriller, a noirish 80s throwback, an urban fairy tale, and possibly even a masterpiece. Like the aforementioned elevator scene, Drive is not for everyone, and the tonal contrast between tenderness and brutality that defines the film can be jarring to say the least. Yet for a willing and ready audience member, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film is a cinematic kick-to-the-head – a film that throws you into familiar genre territory before tossing cliché out the window, and taking a demented, heavily stylized look at the existential implications of action cinema, the very idea of chivalric heroism, and the repulsive yet radiant beauty of a love story coated with blood. That, and it’s just a ton of fun to watch. Drive is crazy. Drive is strange. Drive is the reason I love movies. Want a toothpick?


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