- It's rare that a film combines the over-the-top badassery of the best B-movies with the sense of artistry inherent in many Oscar-worthy dramas. But DRIVE is that movie and more. It's violent, pulpy, noir-ish, and sometimes downright strange ... but it's also so beautifully directed, grippingly acted, and pulsing with hard-boiled intensity that it transcends genre and just becomes a great film, period. DRIVE is simply awesome, and I have no doubt that it will rank among my own personal best films of 2011. The question is whether the critical establishment will be able to recognize the movie for the tour de force that it is, and whether audiences will find it over time and embrace it as a sure-to-be (cult?) classic in the making.
From the opening minutes, DRIVE simply bleeds cool. Director Nicolas Winding Refn does a masterful job of setting up a mood of neo-noir foreboding, an atmosphere that is simultaneously 70's / 80's throwback and something totally postmodern and new. The pace of the film is slow, deliberate, haunting, and methodical. But at times, it simply explodes in violent outbursts, releasing all of the tension that's been built up to that point. The pacing, the mood, the absolutely awesome 80's-style synth soundtrack ... it all adds up to one of the most atmospheric and immersive movies in years. Trust me, after seeing this film you will want to own the soundtrack and play it in your car while driving around at night, just to recapture some of that feeling of cool that DRIVE positively exudes from every frame.
The story of Drive is simple, basic, but effective. As I said, it's very noirish - in the sense that it feels like we're watching characters being moved across a chessboard by the hand of fate. But the details of the plot are less important than the iconography at play here. The characters are all archtypes, and the mystery about them - particularly around our main character - adds to their larger-than-life mystique. The movie follows the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) as he navigates the shadowy streets of Los Angeles. He is a mechanic and a movie stuntman by day. By night he is a driver-for-hire, picking up criminals and other shady characters, facilitating their escapes from crime scenes and from the law, and carrying out his assigned task with silent, ruthless efficiency. The Driver is a lone wolf - little to no emotional connections. When he does his jobs, he doesn't talk, he doesn't want to know the details of what he's involving himself in. Slowly though, the Driver begins to open himself up a bit when he befriends his neighbor, a woman named Irene (Carrie Mulligan). He allows himself, for a moment, to get mixed up in her personal life, and suddenly his world gets turned on its head. The Driver lands on the radar of two feuding criminal heavies (Ron Pearlman and Albert Brooks), and soon finds himself in a battle for his life and for the lives of the few people he has come to care for.
Up until now, I was a fan of Ryan Gosling, but I had yet to see him in a part that really blew me away. Part of it may have simply been that some of his most acclaimed roles to date were in movies that just weren't quite my cup of tea. But here, in DRIVE, Gosling has his most memorable, iconic role to date. In some ways, he's a throwback to the types of stoic action heroes played by the likes of Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood. But there's also something off about The Driver, something unstable and unbalanced. Part of that likely comes from the offbeat, arthouse sensibilities of Nicolas Winding Refn - he crafts scenes that walk the line between darkly comic and flat-out weird. And he makes The Driver quirky to the point where some have speculated if he was legitimately supposed to have some sort of disorder. To me, I saw The Driver as a stand-in for the archtypal Hollywood star, maybe even for Hollywood itself. A cool and flashy exterior hiding a dark and disturbing underside. In that sense, there's an almost Lynchian darkness and surrealist poetry to DRIVE. You get the sense that while certain scenes feel off, almost abstract, there's a lot of meaning and metaphor bubbling just beneath the surface.
The supporting cast of DRIVE is fantastic. A lot of people are talking about Albert Brooks in an against-type role as Bernie, a tough-as-nails crime boss. And they are right to praise the performance - Brooks is menacing, unpredictable, and downright scary as Bernie. He's one of the best on-screen villains I've seen in quite some time. Similarly great is Ron Pearlman as Nino, another of the film's nasty criminal antagonists. Pearlman has often played gruff-yet-lovable types, but not here. Here he's funny and charming on occasion, sure, but he's also downright mean. As if that wasn't enough of a one-two punch of awesome, Bryan Cranston is also in the film in a key supporting role as Shannon, one of the few friends of The Driver - a mentor of sorts who also sets him up on key jobs. Cranston plays a much more blue-collar type than we're used to from him, but it's a testament to his greatness that he seems to slip right in to the role. He's so good as Walter White on Breaking Bad that, these days, it's hard to see him as anyone else. but somehow, he effortlessly creates a much different sort of character in Drive. Christina Hendricks also pops up as a low-level criminal. It's a small-ish role, but a key one, and Hendricks does a nice job with it. And man, the fate her character suffers makes for one mind-blowingly memorable scene. Finally, Carrie Mulligan does a great job. Like Gosling, she has to convey a lot without a lot of dialogue. But her expressive performance allows us to easily read between the lines and get a sense of her inner self. And again, the direction is so good at creating emotion, tension, and chemistry that the minimalist dialogue style 100% works.
The performances all help to give life to this neon-lit, ultra-cinematic world that Nicolas Winding Refn has created. Many movies take place in Los Angeles, but in most the setting just feels like a matter of convenience. But DRIVE harkens back to great film noir and neo-noir films - from Sunset Boulevard to Chinatown to Blade Runner to Mulholland Drive - in that Los Angeles itself is a vital character within the movie, and clearly, the movie has a lot to say about the city and the people who call it home.
DRIVE is one of those movies that seeps into your brain and doesn't let go. The visuals, the music, the "feeling" of this movie will stick with me for a long time. You'll want the soundtrack, the eventual blu-ray, and the awesome scorpion-emblazoned jacket that The Driver wears throughout the film. Suffice it to say, go out and see it now if you haven't already - this is one of the year's best and most badass films.
My Grade: A