Reviewed by Ian Forbes, Sobering Conclusion
Making a splash at Cannes this year was director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. The film begins in a deceptively simple manner, with Driver (a man whose name we never learn, played by Ryan Gosling) as … well … a getaway driver. Opening the story with a job for a couple of two-bit thieves, his expertise allows for a smooth getaway and it is thus that we’re introduced to the methodical and calm surface nature of the character.
Of course, things aren’t this simple. By day, Driver uses his auto-skills in the stunts department of movies and also fills in as a mechanic at a garage owned by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who’s sort of his agent/boss/closest thing to a friend. Shannon gets into business with some local gangsters (Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks) and Driver meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), a beautiful neighbor with a little boy … and an ex-con for a husband named Standard (Oscar Isaac) who’s just been paroled. Trying to help Standard get out from under a debt earned in jail, Driver gets involved in something that will threaten to turn the beginnings of a romantic fairy tale into a blood-soaked nightmare.
What’s most impressive about Refn’s film is in how he and Gosling slowly and methodically build Driver as a character almost primarily through visuals. Like most of Refn’s film protagonists (Bronson, Pusher, Valhalla Rising), it isn’t about witty dialogue and big diatribes, it’s in the rage underneath the surface of a facade that we learn what the character is all about.
Over the last ten years, Gosling has been delivering a wide range of complex and impressive performances (The United States of Leland, Half-Nelson, Blue Valentine, to name a few). He’s done it once again with Driver, utilizing the charm and magnetism mainstream audiences know from films like Crazy, Stupid, Love. while blending it with a dark side only hinted at it in other productions.
And make no mistake, Drive is not for the faint of heart. As much as the trailers try to make this seem like an action flick most people are accustomed to, the combination of slowly building the characters and events, only to give way to some very graphic and brutal violence in the last act, had a few screening audience members headed for the doors early. And that’s too bad because Refn has so masterfully ensured that for all of the anger and revenge expended in the back portion of the film, the impact is more from being along for the ride with Driver from the beginning. Just showing the last 40 minutes, when things get a bit nasty, doesn’t clue you in to all of the emotion picked up in the first 60.
Another element working so well in the film is Cliff Martinez’ electronic-heavy score and a soundtrack evoking a timelessness of ’80s vocals and synthesizers while still feeling current. As a number of scenes play out without dialogue, the music takes on a bigger role and it matches perfectly with Refn’s aesthetics (although the lyrics are a bit too heavy handed at times). Speaking of how the film looks, this is an example of where being colorblind helps a director present his vision. Seeing as contrast, not color, is so important to him personally, the scenes are shot much more vibrantly and seemingly with more thought and care than most standard films. And the neon pink, Miami Vice-like credits only add that element of placing the film anywhere in the last 25 years (though the cars put this squarely in the present).
Like Gosling, the rest of the cast is more than up for the task. Mulligan is practically radiant and the scenes between her and Gosling are stunning, with each telling volumes in glances and body language – needing no dialogue at all to divulge their intentions. Cranston, Isaac, Hendricks and Perlman all work well in their roles but the true supporting standout is Albert Brooks. If there’s any justice at all, he’ll be up for a few statuettes as a result of this performance.
Overall, the violence may be a bit too much for some, the slow pacing of the opening half a problem for others, but both elements are necessary to tell this story and the entire cast and crew is to be commended for their efforts. This is the kind of filmmaking that inspires and will be sure to make it onto a number of Best Of 2011 lists. Simply put, Drive is one of the best films of the year and will hopefully expose more people to Refn’s talent as a director.
For Gosling fans, this is especially important as the pair are set to make two more movies together in the next few years – the first not even with a working title yet and the second being the planned remake of Logan’s Run (given Refn’s approach, this one has some hope of not making my list of terrible cash grabs).
Drive hits theaters on September 16, 2011 and is rated R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity.
More on Drive:
–Trailer, news, and cast info