Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Pearlman, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac and Kaden Leos
Release Date: September 16, 2011
Immediately are we distanced from the majority of groggy thrillers as director Nicolas Winding Refn, working in astonishing form (he won best director award at this year’s Cannes Festival), achieves insistent thrills from the beginning of his new film Drive. Unfurling from the opening credits onward is an excellence and master-class in control and discipline that cannot be disputed. It is a simple chase scene, a getaway driver discreetly navigating a silver Chevy Impala away from the authorities, set during a gorgeously neon-lit night in the heart of Los Angeles. Refn establishes an atmosphere so distinctive that it calls to mind Mulholland Dr., a great atmospheric film with the same vindictiveness Drive has of Hollywood. Drive‘s atmosphere is one that glorifies and harbors masculinity, violence, and existential crises.
This initial scene, with the help of an enchanted and electric soundtrack by various artists, sets an unquestionable tone that evokes a coolness undoubtedly rare in contemporary cinema, and to bare witness to it actually playing out is something to cherish. Think of the un-exhausting coolness in which Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, or French actor Alain Delon so many times evoked in films that have defined how we now perceive cool. Now witness Drive, an elegantly polished thriller by Refn (Valhalla Rising, Bronson) and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, both who are working in a mode that is intertwined with tinges of European artistry. The film’s primary concern is eradicating the faintest of traditional aspects the thrillers lays claim to and establishing a new direction in which it can travel.
From the moment we are in the presence of the taciturn Driver (no other name is given to him) we know he’s of a tranquil disposition and that he will never second-guess himself. Being a stuntman for Hollywood and mechanic at a garage owned by his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston), he moonlights as a getaway driver. He callously informs his clients that he’s only a driver, nothing more, and tells all of them they have five minutes to do whatever it is they’re doing. If they don’t show after five minutes, The Driver leaves. It’s hard to bring this kind of cockiness and assurance to a role that demands one to be so imperturbable and so emotionally wrecked. It’s a demanding performance, and Ryan Gosling, yet again, more than delivers as The Driver who is seemingly externally stoic yet internally cultivating emotions that probably have been gnawing away persistently at his soul for some time now.
The Driver soon becomes infatuated with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a mother doing her best to raise her son Benicio (Kaden Leos) while her husband is serving time in jail. The three experience some quality time together, and the ice-cold Driver allows a smile to wash over his stonewalled face, soon intimating strong feelings of affection for her. When the husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), gets released from jail, The Driver finds himself trying to do the right thing for Standard, soon becoming embedded in a ghastly, violent web replete with the most ruthless and cunning mafia men with evil intentions (Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman). Brooks, hardly has he ever been better, is beyond maniacal. He thrives as the once Hollywood producer now dabbling in racing tournaments and other unnecessary deeds that soon ensnare The Driver.
The momentary happiness that The Driver comes in contact with when becoming intimate with Irene soon dissolves, causing him to enter a different mindset, one that promotes and cultivates ultra-violence. Helplessly he is thrust into a world of insane car chases, heists gone wrong and men with a sole intention of killing. And when the movie unexpectedly erupts into this beautiful medley of brutality (reminiscent of A History of Violence), Drive switches to another gear that guarantees its distinction from most films out today.
Incomprehensible is the way Refn manipulates violence into resembling beauty. Scenes that would normally induce squeamishness and loathsomeness are magically rendered marvelous. His direction elevates particular scenes of blatant, chaotic violence to such an elevation where they attain, paradoxically, a status that is operatic. His conduction of chaos and carnage is done with such a sure hand, knowing exactly how he is going to transform blood into beautiful artistry.
Drive‘s script is by Hossein Amini, from a 2005 neo-noir novel of the same name by James Sallis, and it not only gets right the violent aspects of Sallis’ book, but also succeeds with the romantic and existential aspects. Both the script and the book see the anguish tormenting its main character, The Driver. But neither finds it necessary to resolve the percolating anguish. Refn allows his film to simply stand back and encounter what a lost soul is capable of doing and what it is capable of wanting. There are possible remedies to what The Driver is longing for but they remain rather ambiguous. The Driver is a complex character, Gosling shows that, and his issues cannot be tidied up so easily. He is lost, confused, lonely, and violent. He is a soul searching for connection. And ultimately, that is what Drive is all about: A lost man who is trying to attain, and hopefully preserve, a fleeting moment of bliss in a city that has already descended into a ghastly abyss.
Rating: ***** out of *****