Drive most definitely leans in the positive direction. A throwback to the film noirs of the 1940s, a throwback to the crime thrillers of the 1970s, a love story, and one of the most graphically violent films I've ever seen. However I describe it though, I can say I definitely loved it.
Working for his friend, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), at his mildly successful garage, Driver (Ryan Gosling) lives in Los Angeles and leads an almost monk-like life. He works for Shannon, doubles as a stunt driver for Hollywood productions, but that's just the start. He also provides a unique service to any would-be criminals, working as a getaway driver with a very strict set of rules and demands. Driver more or less drifts along from day to day, that is until he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), his next door neighbors. His brief reverie is broken up though as Irene's husband is paroled from jail, and Shannon cuts a deal with a mobster, Bernie (Albert Brooks), to buy a used stock car so Driver can utilize his driving skills on a race track.
From Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, 'Drive' makes a risky choice that ends up paying huge dividends. This may sound odd, but this is a film that tries to be cool. It wants to be cool. It wants you as a viewer to think it's cool, and it tries really hard to get to that point. I usually resent movies that try so ridiculously hard to be so stylish, but for Refn, he succeeds on just about every level. It is cool. It is stylish. It's a freaking ridiculously cool movie. Drive is a film noir, a crime thriller, a love story, and an ultra-violent film that rips you out of your seats. I debated for months whether to check it out -- having heard some lukewarm reviews -- and I'm glad I finally sought it out.
Let's delve into that style some. Originally intended as a big-budget, blockbuster film, Drive was eventually released as a lower budget, far artsier film. Refn filmed on location in Los Angeles, and the visual look of the film is a stunner. This is where the art house tag applies to 'Drive.' It's colorful but takes advantage of shadows and light like a noir from the 1940s. Slow motion is utilized to startle and upset, to build tension in an insanely simple way. The opening title card is in hot pink, and oddly enough, it works. The soundtrack from composer Cliff Martinez has a New Age, ethereal feel to it (a la so many 1980s soundtracks). Listen to a sample HERE. 'Drive' also features a theme song of sorts, an odd but perfectly appropriate indie rock song called A Real Hero. It shouldn't work in the context of the story, but it does. The whole soundtrack has an odd appeal to it, a techno-electronica sound that feels like a throwback to the 1980s (yes, again), but it works. I loved the look, loved the music.
As for star Ryan Gosling, I'm not a huge fan of him as an actor, but this is a great performance from him. I think it's more than just the acting because in terms of words actually spoken, Gosling says about 121 words the entire movie. It's all reactions and expressions, physical movements and saying as much as humanly impossible with his eyes instead of speaking. I loved this character. We know basically nothing about him other than that he's a freaky talented driver and he utilizes in weird ways; as a getaway driver. His rules are simple; you get 5 minutes to pull the job -- no more, no less -- and he'll make sure you get away. He bonds instantly with Irene and her son, seeing potential for something there. What? Who knows. Other reviews point to Gosling's performance reflecting similar performances from actors like Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. I'm hard pressed to disagree. You can act without giving huge, grandiose speeches (McQueen and Eastwood certainly proved that), and Gosling's acting is understated and simple. When he sees Irene and Benicio threatened, he comes to life. Does he see a release, an out, a happiness in them? Yeah, probably, but it's also easy to see himself. Maybe he was that little boy years ago.
Gosling's nearly silent, monk-like lead performance is clearly the role that makes this film special, but I loved all of the performances. Mulligan is a great counter to Gosling, a similarly understated, emotionally torn apart performance with young Leos representing himself well. Mulligan's Irene loves her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), recently paroled and owing some nasty people a lot of money. Enter Driver. Brooks isn't a typical choice to play a villainous mobster, but his unlikely casting is a gem. His Bernie is typically an unwilling killer, but he'll do it just the same. Cranston's Shannon is probably the most human of all the characters, maybe Driver's only true friend. Ron Perlman is not surprisingly very intimidating as Nino, Bernie's partner in all sorts of nasty mob stuff. James Biberi is Cook, a gangster who gets set up with Driver and Standard with Christina Hendricks as Blanche, his moll. Also look briefly for Russ Tamblyn as Doc, helping Driver out of a jam.
One of the more impressive things about this movie is the job Refn (and Hossein Amini's script off James Sallis' novel) does in completely throwing the viewer for a loop. The first 45 minutes almost lull you to sleep with long, quiet scenes that feature little dialogue. And then here comes the VIOLENCE! As fellow reviewer David J. Fowlie says, this movie is Michael Mann meets Walter Hill meets Sam Peckinpah. We're talking gory, over the top violence that is both startling and uncomfortable to watch while also hard to look away from. Heads exploding courtesy of a shotgun blasts, impalings on all sorts of brutal, blunt and sharp instruments, and several other deaths I don't want to spoil. I think this violence lands in heavier fashion than some ridiculously over the screen violence is that it's personal. I was stunned by how much I came to like these characters. The violence may be incredibly graphic (even cartoonish), but it is visceral in the same way. Go figure, but it ain't for the squeamish.
This is a film that could be analyzed scene-for-scene, but I don't want to get into the gory details from one scene to another. It reminds me of so many other movies, but it manages to create its own identity in the process. The story reflects a film noir, the style reflects so many crime thrillers, the music the 1980s, and Gosling's main character is straight out of a French crime story from Melville (specifically Le Samourai). I loved everything about it, and I like it more two days later having thought about it some more. The only thing I had an issue with is the final scene -- open-ended for your consideration! -- that is rather ambiguous. It's up to you for your decision so it's not a deal-breaker by any means. It all comes back to the Driver though, an anti-hero with no past, no real ties to the world, doing something because he thinks it's right.
A late scene spells it out, a bloodied Driver standing on the top level of a parking garage on the phone to set up a meeting to wrap up all the loose ends. It's filmed in the dead of night, the lights from Los Angeles lighting up the background as the two characters (no spoilers about who's at the other end of the phone) hash it out in a meeting that will no go smoothly. His Driver is a doomed character if there ever was in a great movie that flies out of the gate, settles in nicely and then sets you up time and time again before that ending. I loved it. Glad I caught up with it.
Drive (2011): ****/****