Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay by Hossein Amini
Ryan Gosling as Driver
Carey Mulligan as Irene
Bryan Cranston as Shannon
Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose
Oscar Isaac as Standard
Christina Hendricks as Blanche
How long is Drive? 100 minutes.
What is Drive rated? R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity.
What Makes A Man To Wander…?
Drive, the latest film by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, arrives amid great fanfare, with high expectations riding shotgun. Younger sibling of the Pusher films, Valhalla Rising. and the wrenching cult hit Bronson, it promised to rattle fans hard while defying all guesses as to what will come around each corner. But after all, it’s just a movie about a getaway driver, right?
Well… that is how it starts. Ryan Gosling plays “the driver,” immediately recognizable as the super cool man of few words. Imagine a slightly more cheerful version of a 70s-vintage Eastwood or, curiously enough, Bronson. He is a freelance stunt driver for movies by day, and by night he provides high-speed escape plans for thieves and other assorted criminals. Couple that with his reluctance to reveal what’s on his mind — except when he has to get violent — and you basically have your standard “coolest guy ever.” His personal guarantee is that as long as you are back in his car five minutes after dropoff, he will get you to safety. One minute late, and you lose your ride. No exceptions.
The opening sequence deftly sidesteps the expectation that the driver’s only skill is simply being faster than the cops. That can only work so many times, and would suffice for a Dwayne “Rock” Johnson or Nicolas Cage vehicle. Drive, however, is something a little more special. Though his ability to drive confidently at insane speeds is important, he combines it with an encyclopedic knowledge of side streets, hiding places, police procedure, and the ebb and flow of Los Angeles nightlife. The driver’s reliance on his wits will clearly be the focus of the film.
There is a whole other film, more predictable but equally satisfying, packed into the first few minutes of Drive. In that film, we concentrate strictly on the getaway driver angle. He leaves the wrong client behind at the scene of a bungled heist, forcing him to flee for his life from those seeking revenge and restitution.
The premise as established is simple enough, but the getaway driving takes up a fairly small part of this film. New business opportunities and the lonely single mom across the hall (Carey Mulligan), complicate the driver’s life immensely. This is why loners are well advised to stay alone, shunning professional ambition and emotional ties. The driver commits the cardinal movie sin of caring deeply for his neighbors, and that is when the trouble starts. By breaking his own hard-line rules of anonymity and keeping personal stakes out of business, he endangers himself and everyone within spitting distance. To set things right, he will have to toughen up and learn to be resourceful outside the protective hull of his souped-up Impala.
There really are very few words in the script, and the driver hardly says anything at all. A few audience members grumbled about this on the way out, but were they really hungry for more garden variety action-drama dialogue, or worse… narrative voiceover? Despite its holy-grail status in Hollywood, a clever script brimming with witty banter is not always what a movie needs. Winding Refn knows his own style, and sticks to it — moody silence, eerie music, stylish lighting, and punctuating moments of extreme violence. Too much chatter would ruin the image of the taciturn loner, even if his motives are uncomfortably mysterious now and then.
The best and most fully rendered character in the film is Bernie Rose, a scowling cold-blooded criminal played by Albert Brooks. I have not seen much of Brooks lately and never in a role that was not primarily funny. However, he deserves special mention for bringing vitality to what could have been a run-of-the-mill thug. Ron Perlman is almost as fiendishly entertaining, as a despicable two-bit hood who aspires to be a real crime boss when he grows up, so to speak. You don’t get more grown up than a combination of Tom Waits and Fred Gwynne. Ron Perlman is so great.
A word about violence: Winding Refn deals it out in economical doses, but when it arrives, stand back. The driver and his enemies are prone to sudden and ferocious acts of bloodletting, a phenomenon which kicks in more than midway through the film. The Coen Brothers are fond of the same kind of pacing, but they often manage to make it kind of funny. Remember how much you laughed during No Country For Old Men? (kidding.) I rarely ever cover my eyes during a film, but I caught myself doing it at least once during Drive. Check it out for yourself, and I’ll bet you can guess the scene.
The driver’s behavior and choices seem a little disjointed and inconsistent, but they work in the service of a generally plausible plot. That places the film nicely above average to start with. The last act trails off to a mildly disappointing but perfectly serviceable conclusion. If Winding Refn had conceived a closing sequence as original and well-orchestrated as his opening, Drive would be just about perfect.
Kudos to Ryan Gosling, who found an interesting role that will give him another popular association besides “that guy from The Notebook.” The cast is strong overall, especially since what dialogue does get spoken is not so strong. The movie looks beautiful and weird, starkly lit in strange neon colors. At times it plays like a thinking man’s version of Simon West’s The Mechanic with Jason Statham. The music by Cliff Martinez maintains a delightfully melancholy mood, hearkening back a generation or so to some of the best work Angelo Badalamenti did for David Lynch. Drive reminds me mostly of Sexy Beast, which was a jarring but pleasant surprise for many who expected a gangster smash-up of the kind made famous by Guy Ritchie, and instead got a weirdo twist on a familiar genre. It may not be what you expect, or even think you want to see, but as I mentioned before, Drive is something special.