Drive (United States, 2011)September 13, 2011
Perhaps Drive is an action movie for those who don't ordinarily like action movies. It's also an action movie for those who crave them like a drug. Employing unusual camera angles and a unique sense of style, director Nicolas Winding Refn takes us on a journey that gets us to feel something for the characters while still receiving an adrenaline rush when the speedometer races into the red zone. The car chases in this movie are exciting, but the best thing about Drive is that you don't know what's going to happen. There's a sense that the lead character could end up six feet under, and that adds an element of urgency to this movie that most in the genre are missing.
Ryan Gosling is perhaps an unlikely candidate for an action movie star, not only because he's a good actor (not necessarily a desirable quality for this sort of role) but because his skills are best utilized in dramas and low-key comedies. As it turns out, however, he's a good fit for Drive, in which his inscrutable character, credited only as "Driver," reveals little background and almost never engages in small talk. Is he autistic or merely an introvert? The movie doesn't much care. Often, dialogue is used to build a character, but Driver speaks so infrequently that it falls upon Gosling's mannerisms and facial expressions to develop someone better realized than a cartoonish stick figure. His success elevates Drive. We become invested not only in the man's life but in the chaste, innocent relationship that develops between Driver and his neighbor, Irene, who is played with a Cathy Rigby/girl-next-door sweetness by Carey Mulligan.
The movie opens with an explosive, pulse pounding prologue set to a throbbing score by composer Cliff Martinez. Driver does all sorts of jobs - works at a garage, races, drives movie stunt cars, and provides "transportation" for criminals. Drive opens with a getaway, and shows the meticulous planning that goes into one such operation. It includes a stopwatch, a police band radio, and some badass driving. The eight minute sequence could stand on its own as a short. It's the best part of a movie that is otherwise still very good.
Driver lives in the moment. He's not afraid of dying, perhaps because he never really lives. He falls in love with his neighbor, but she's married to a guy in prison and he's coming home soon. But "soon" is not today, so Driver finds momentary happiness in becoming a surrogate husband and father for a few days. Meanwhile, his friend and boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), provides him with getaway vehicles and puts together a deal that will allow him to drive a souped-up car in races. Unfortunately, to get the money for the car, he has to turn to a couple of mob thugs - the refined Bernie (Albert Brooks) and the less-refined Nino (Ron Perlman). You know things aren't going to go well with these two involved.
Perhaps because we're so used to seeing Brooks as a sadsack funny guy, we're more sympathetic to his character than we might be if Bernie was played by a more typical wise guy figure. It's effective casting because Brooks is believable. Ron Perlman enjoys chewing a little on his lines; Nino is from the Joe Pesci school of thugs - he shouts a lot and thinks violence isn't just the best way to solve problems; it's the only way. One senses that Bernie has spent half his life cleaning up Nino's messes, as a darkly comedic moment hints.
Taciturn action heroes are nothing new. Arnold Schwarzenegger strode through many films without cracking a smile. The difference here is that Gosling is not muscle-bound and his silences say more than many character's dialogues. You can see his mind working as he chews on a toothpick and the half-smirk speaks volumes. He doesn't carry a gun but is capable of a shocking degree of violence. In fact, the movie includes scenes worthy of Tarantino in terms of what they show and imply.
Refn, who strode to international recognition with Bronson, which featured a stunning performance by Tom Hardy, brings a European sense of style to Drive. From the beginning, it's clear this is not a standard-order action film. It takes its characters as seriously as its chases, shootouts, and fights. Neither aspect is short-changed, and the music and cinematography are used to establish and sustain tone. This is a moody film, with moments of understated, dark humor and bleakness. Most importantly, it shows that movies can generate a testosterone-and-adrenaline cocktail without requiring viewers to undergo a frontal lobotomy to appreciate the result.
Drive (United States, 2011)
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac
Screenplay: Hossein Amini, based on the book by James Sallis
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Music: Cliff Martinez
U.S. Distributor: Filmdistrict Distribution