A description of the story of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive would not do it justice.
The basic elements that go into Drive could be lifted whole and dropped down in Transporter 4 with barely a change. Drive isn’t about the usual screenplay beats, although the story of this spare, suspenseful noir unfolds with beautiful precision. Drive is about atmosphere - neon glow and headlights in the night and moments that hang in the air until they snap to life in sudden, brutal violence. Drive is about visceral gritty car action set against the backdrop of an ethereal, synth pop soundtrack. It’s about moments where entire conversations take place in silent looks between characters, and life and death power struggles are happening silently while on the surface two characters talk calmly. Refn and his team of filmmakers have taken the bare bones of a story we’ve seen in a thousand other action films and created something immediate and exciting and unexpected. It is an absolute must-see. The first film of 2011 to knock me flat on my ass.
I knew I was in for something special right from the beginning. There is a moment when we wait in the night outside a warehouse for robbers to flee the scene of a crime. The first one emerges and piles in the getaway care and then…silence. The second guy isn’t showing. Without knowing anything about these men or what they are doing the suspense is already spiking into white knuckle territory. We in the audience sit back and strap in because we know we are in the hands of a film that knows exactly what it is doing.
The man at the wheel of the getaway car is Ryan Gosling playing the Driver – no other name is given – a man who does stunt work for the movies by day and works as a getaway driver for hire by night. If you are committing a crime you can pay for him to be there when it is time to split. He doesn’t carry a gun, he doesn’t help with the crime, he doesn’t get involved in any way other than driving. After seeing him in action the first time all we can think is whatever they’re paying him he’s worth it.
Ryan Gosling, so effusive and extroverted in Blue Valentine and Half Nelson here seems to empty himself out. It’s an incredibly original performance; hard to think of another quite like it. He barely speaks. Even in a conversation he says the bare minimum. Words have to be extracted from him reluctantly. It throws off the natural rhythms of social interaction and it makes it tough for the other characters, and for us in the audience for that matter, to get a handle on this guy. He is all strange body language and speaking rhythms at right angles to the conversation. As events spiral downward the cracks in the façade start to show and we realize there surface calm hides a dangerous, broken man capable of horrifyingly extreme behavior. It’s riveting work. In the competition between Gosling and Christian Bale for the title for premiere talent of his generation I think Gosling just edged back into the lead.
The Driver meets a girl, his neighbor played by Carey Mulligan. For a man who has no visible life when he’s not driving – and no past for that matter – we understand that this relationship is the first meaningful human interaction he has had in God knows how long. It’s hard to say what his intention are, whether he even sees himself as capable of having a relationship. He sits on the couch with a small smile on his face watching cartoons with her young son, like a man amused to try a normal life on for size, a life that it is totally alien to him. We understand instinctively why, even if he’s known her only a short time, he is willing to break his code and get involved when her husband returns home from jail trailing dangerous connections behind him that threaten Mulligan and her son.
As great as Gosling is in Drive the revelation is Albert Brooks' work as the B-movie producer and low-level gangster that the Driver manages to make an enemy of. Refn deserves a lot of credit for having the vision to see Brooks in the part so unlike anything he has played before. It is the best use countercasting since Sergio Leone had Henry Fonda gunning down children in Once Upon a Time in the West. The affable smile we know so well from Brooks now feels false. A coldness has crept into it. There is a threat lurking underneath everything he says, even if, it being Brooks and all, we are reluctant to believe it. There is a is a masterpiece of suspense in a late in the film confrontation between Brooks and Bryan Cranston with the characters’ real intentions remaining hidden just out of view until the last moment. It's Oscar worthy work.
The rest of the cast is aces as well. Mulligan does her usual stellar work, this time turning what could have just been “the girl” into a fully dimensional character. In addition to her and Cranston there is Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaacs, and Christina Hendricks, who in a small but pivotal role shows that her strong presence on Mad Men is transferable to the big screen.
It’s telling how rich an experience Drive is since I am almost a thousand words in and I haven’t touched on the driving scenes yet. Lovers of real, no bullshit, visceral action scenes have cause to rejoice. Drive instantly joins the ranks of Two Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point as one of the all time great car movies. The chase scenes have gravity and believability at every tire squeal and downshift. The silliness that has infected car chases in the age of Fast and Furious style cartoonishness is put to shame. Not only is it shot and assembled with shotgun intensity, you can follow the strategy at every stage of the chase and understand why it is Gosling is so good. You believe he could grab the wheel of a beat up old minivan and still outdrive the baddies.
With this work Nicolas Winding Refn launches himself into the top tier of current filmmakers. He has directed a film with the raw intensity of Michael Mann spliced with the other-worldly mood of David Lynch, while his depiction of violence deserves comparison with the best of Cronenberg with its refusal to allow the audience a comfortable detachment. Then there is Cliff Martinez’s hypnotic score,the zero percent body fat editing, the mesmerizing, at times surreal cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, and the nerve-jangling sound design. Everyone here is rowing in the same direction. Every scene has some element that is cooler than it had to be. It's a hell of a movie. One that grabs you by the guts from the first scene and doesn't let go until the perfect, open-ended final shot. If you care at all about good films you have no excuse to miss this one.
Verdict: If you don’t see Drive you can’t talk about film in 2011. See it. 10 out of 10.