– Summary –
Director : Nicolas Winding Refn
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, James Biberi.
Approx Running Time : 100 Minutes
Synopsis: A man known only as the Driver befriends his next-door neighbor, a woman, whose husband has just recently been released from prison – while assisting the husband commit a robbery to pay back a large sum of gangster protection money, the Driver becomes embroiled in the machinations of a local crime gang intent on keeping him quiet.
What we think : Terrific dramatic thriller featuring a potentially iconic performance from Ryan Gosling, whose say-little-slow-burn portrayal of a man seemingly trying to find redemption sears the screen and burns into the brain. The film isn’t an all-out action monster, and it’s not a tear-jerking emotional rollercoaster; what Drive is is a deliberately paced, incredibly well acted, simple story about a guy protecting that which he loves. Moments of violence are brief punctuations in between long stretches of silence and calm, the story bubbling away all throughout a film more riveting than thrilling, more brutal than romantic, more sublime than ostentatious. What a ripper.
Truly great action films come along only once in a while – and in the 2000’s, even less often than that. You could list on the fingers of one hand the number of universally admired films in which driving stunts, gunplay and bloody violence are actually helpful to the story, or in any way universally appealing. Drive makes a welcome addition to the fingers on that hand, even if describing it as an Action Film is perhaps a little disingenuous on my part. Drive isn’t a typical Hollywood action movie, although there are moments of gut-wrenching action, helmed with close-up ferocity by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s not really a deep dramatic piece either, with the characters atypically using glances, longing stares and nods of the head for the majority of their communication – often, it’s the unsaid that’s more important. As a thriller, you’d class it as a sleeper, the kind of thriller for intellectuals who enjoy a film less about cheap thrills than about intelligent screenwriting and storytelling. What I’d say is that Drive is a mix of all three, a very successful mix, if the critical reception this movie received originally is anything to go by. Current It Man, Ryan Gosling, who seems to be in every great film coming out at the moment, leads a great cast through this stylish genre piece with a performance easily described as “intense”, saying more in a twenty second kiss with Carey Mulligan than most actors do in an entire film. So, is Drive a film able to live up to the hype; is it able to resist the urge for those wondering what all the hype is about to dismiss it out of hand as just another Edge Of Darkness style thriller?
The Driver (Ryan Gosling) works part time as a Hollywood stunt driver, mechanic and getaway driver for hire, under the tutelage of Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the man responsible for setting him up with “jobs”. Shannon himself works for local mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Bernie’s psychopathic brother Nino (Ron Pearlman), and they are about to undertake a career in stock-car racing using the Driver’s unique set of skills. The Driver meets and befriends Irene (Carey Mulligan, looking more like Michelle Williams in each passing film), his next-door neighbor with a young son and a husband in prison. Not long after they start spending time together, Irene learns that her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is to be released, although upon his arrival in her life the Driver soon realizes that all is not right. Standard has to pay back a gangster for his protection while in prison, although the amount to be paid back is more than a parolee is able to obtain legally. Using his connections, the Driver decides, for the sake of Irene and her young son Benicio, to help Standard by driving a getaway car for him. Standard’s plan is to rob a pawn shop and repay the gangsters, but things take a turn for the worse when the robbery goes horribly wrong, and the Driver sets out to punish those who set him up and threaten to harm Irene and the child.
I came to this film knowing nothing about Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Now, having seen Drive, I want to see more of his stuff. I missed both his previous English language films, Valhalla Rising and Bronson, both of which received decent reviews across the board, so my previous experience with his work amounted to zilch. Drive is a stunning introduction if you’re in the same situation as I was. Scoring the talent of Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, who scorch the screen with what seems like a purely platonic, and yet deeply emotional friendship, is the standout element of what is a terrific pulpy effort from Refn, whose work here reminds me of a young Scorsese. This is a film with attitude, a central performance that slays any semblance of cruising through a role with the bloody determination of an early Clint Eastwood. Sure, I’ve referenced both Scorsese and Eastwood, two Hollywood legends, in the same paragraph as a parallel to this film, and stand by that, for what it’s worth. Refn directs the film with the surety of a man vastly more experienced that I’d giving him credit for, and Gosling acts like a Boss as the unnamed Driver, a man who is good at what he does and woe betide those who get in his way. I read with interest that Drive is based on a novel, written by James Sallis. Drive’s literary origins do not immediately present themselves, although after reflecting for a while, I’d agree that there’s a strange vibe about the film that “could make a good book“, if you will. It’s an elegant story of attraction, violence and the sort of Hollywood-ised honor so often found in films featuring the aforementioned Clint Eastwood, of whom Gosling reminds me so much in this.
Gosling burns the screen here, owning his character much like Eastwood’s Man With No Name, strong and silent, a man of “doing” instead of talking. The Driver isn’t a dude you want to screw with, as it turns out, and also is a man of few words. When he does speak, though, you better friggin’ listen, because he means it. Gosling’s intensity is palpable, as is his chemistry with on-screen romance Mulligan, as Irene. They don’t do much except be in the same room or vehicle as each other, and yet there’s a frightening amount of… tension, is it.. or connection..? between them. They don’t speak too much to each other, instead communicating with glances, looks, or a tilt of the head. The unsaid, as I alluded to earlier, is more stirring to the emotion of this film than what is uttered. If there’s a performance in Gosling’s career that he can reflect on as one of his best (and it’s a big call to say this so early in his career!) I think the Driver is the one. I keep coming back to the Eastwood example, because it’s so utterly true here – Gosling’s screen persona is just riveting. Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman chew the scenery as a pair of vile mobsters, with Brooke in particular showing any kind of restrain in what could have been a typically cliched role; Pearlman grates most of the time, overacting his way through the film teeth first. Oscar Isaac makes the most of his small role as Standard, while bit players Christina Hendricks and James Biberi have limited time to develop their roles above generic. No, this film belongs to Gosling, and although ably backed up by Mulligan’s fine work, he simply kills it as the Driver.
The direction on this film, as I mentioned, reminds me of an earlier, pre-Aviator Scorsese. The film’s visual aesthetic reminded me a lot of Taxi Driver or Bringing Out The Dead, throwing in a bit of Once Upon A Time In The West (from Sergio Leone) and Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight as well. The Driver seems a mixture of DeNiro’s Travis Bickle and Bronson’s Harmonica, with the violent nature of the former and the steely-eyed glare of the latter caught up in Gosling’s rock-hard male performance. Refn’s direction, with the use of some wonderful cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel (Sigel also DOP’d films like X-Men, Superman Returns, Leatherheads and Valkyrie, to name a few) is taut and trimmed of all narrative fat. The camerawork is well structured and to the point, delivering both the lengthy pauses of thought and the brief, violent explosions of action with equal dexterity. Refn obviously knows how to construct a scene, and frame a shot, and both elements work wonderfully well in this film. Another of Drive’s seemingly inexhaustible positive beats is the soundtrack, a surprisingly quirky beast in its own right. Primarily scored by Cliff Martinez, the soundtrack also features a number of wonderful songs, the most poignant of which is College’s A Real Hero; it’s a track I don’t think I’ve seen feel more suited to a piece of visual art like Drive. A lot like Cameron Crowe’s earlier films, Drive has an eclectic selection of melodies working with the sparking visuals to add that extra kick.
It’s hard to pigeonhole Drive as a single genre of film – it’s got action, sure, as well as moments of terrible violence and serendipitous peace, and scenes of incredible tension, but if I was brave enough to try, I’d say it’s an Action/Thriller of the most highbrow nature. Standout performances from Gosling and Mulligan, coupled with brave and stylish direction from Refn, make Drive a top class film in any category, and one of the best films of 2011. Gosling might have won the female vote with The Notebook, but he cements himself a place alongside Eastwood, Wayne and Willis as the cinematic hard-man icon for the current generation. Drive is a must-watch in every regard.
What others are saying about Drive:
Dan The Man felt a bit more ambivalent that I did about it; “Drive has moments where it absolutely works with it’s stylish direction from Nicolas Winding Refn, great performances from the cast, especially Gosling, and some bloody and thrilling flashes of violence, but too much of it feels slow and features conversations that are more boring than one you would have with a wall.”
Aiden over at Cut The Crap also raved about Gosling’s performance: “I don’t know if this is gonna get him a second Oscar nod like some think it will, but this role has been a long time coming for Gosling and he flat-out destroys with every chance he gets (which is all the freaking time). “
Tom Clift eloquently sums up his feelings thusly: “Engrossing from the opening frame, the film is a fascinating character study, thrilling genre piece and bona fide auteurist masterpiece, one where every shot, edit, beat and smouldering gaze is physically and psychologically entrancing.”
Sam at Duke & The Movies loved it: “Drive is a tour-de-force of storytelling, occasionally explicit but often dramatically subtle and moving. It’s a hauntingly beautiful portrait of a man finally coming to terms with himself, testing out his sentiment, and driving until he finds his way.”
Colin over at Never Mind Pop Film alludes to the Western flavoring of Drive: “In a lot of ways Drive is the new western, with a fresh decal. Stoic leading man, a lot of money at stake, and several bad men waiting to get their hands on it.”
Vik at Filmiac praised Gosling as well: “The entire cast but particularly Gosling is tremendous. With an almost purely physical performance he succeeds in conveying the Driver so viscerally to us, without truly revealing any information about himself, leaving us only guessing as to what his past might have been like.”
I’m not quite sure whether Jessica over at The Velvet Cafe enjoyed it or not, but she sounded positive: “Drive is one of the best films I’ve seen in a theatre this year. Violent or not, it’s so incredibly well crafted. The story isn’t original, but the execution is, and that was what I told the theatre staff who was standing outside the cinema, asking us about what we thought of it.”
Our mate Scott over at Front Room Cinema loved it too: “Drive is brutally punctuated with ultra violence. It is very gory but in itself very creative, each death is a little more extreme and more inventive than the last. Thankfully this violence does not take anything away from the beauty of the film, in fact I believe it actually adds to it.”
Dan at Top 10 Films really enjoyed it too: “Ultimately, Drive is a thoroughly fascinating piece of cinema.”
The guys over at Impassioned Cinema enjoyed it too: “The beginning of Drive might confuse you into believing what is coming in later in film. The second half blew all expectations away”
Check out Rory Dean’s masterful review at Above The Line: “Calculated and precise, flawed, a vision with cojones and Albert Brooks kills someone.”
Disagree with what we’ve said about the film? Wanna make a different point? Fire away in the comments section below!