Drive begins with a tour of the dark, dreary apartment that Ryan Gosling’s character (known throughout the film only as The Driver or The Kid) inhabits. The camera sweeps over the back of The Driver’s satin, Scorpion embroidered jacket; the basic furnishings; and the spectacular view of Los Angeles beyond the windows, while The Driver lays out the rules for his newest “clients” on his cellphone. Immediately you learn, if you weren’t already familiar with his films, that Nicolas Winding Refn knows how to work the hell out of a camera*.
The Driver then performs his night job: wheel man. Those aforementioned clients turn out to be some unsavory fellows robbing a local store. He says nothing as he sits and waits the perfunctory 5 minutes he promised them. As he drives along, his face gives away nothing - except caution. There’s no fear or even concern, really, and it’s obvious that this guy knows exactly what he’s doing. When the cops are on his trail, he leads them not on the typical Blues Brothers type chase through the streets of L.A., but instead on a quiet, cat and mouse expedition, escaping their clutches in a way I didn’t expect, but was cleverly foreshadowed.
Those first fifteen minutes hint that Drive isn’t what you might be expecting: it isn’t about spectacular stunts or explosions or impossible chases. This isn’t a Fast & Furious movie, and it doesn’t try to be. There’s nothing that takes place in a car that will make you think “that could never happen, except in the movies”, and that’s deliberate. Drive is about driving: the actuality of it. It’s about the mood you’re in when you’re behind the wheel, and the feeling you get - or maybe that only some people, including me, get. There’s a combination of both excitement and relaxation I think only driving can give to you. Well, driving, and this film.
Until I was in the middle of watching it, I didn’t realize how little I knew about the movie. I’d seen the trailer, and the opening clip that was released on the Cannes website a few months ago, so I thought I had it pretty figured out: guy with fast cars falls for a girl, gets in some shit. It’s so much more than that, but I don’t want to spoil it. I will warn that the violence took me by surprise. Not sure why, since I’d seen the director’s prior films (dude likes his blood), but it did. Luckily for me, I like violence, but the lady in the theater bathroom with me after the second time I saw it, not so much. The violence wasn’t gratuitous, but it was very graphic. Beautifully so, as weird as that sounds.
I think the reason I loved Drive so much is because it embodies some of my very favorite aspects of film. Film noir will always be my top “genre”, antiheroes will always be the protagonists I want to see. I’ll always want to delve into darkness rather than light. Fog, shadows, and unexpected framing will always capture my attention. Drive is a (neo-)noir, with a mysterious, introverted main character at the center of an impossible plight. The photography is beautiful, the lighting is perfectly mood indicative, the music is out of this world**, and the performances rely more on physical intricacies than exposition.
Ryan Gosling’s performance is amazing. He conveys everything and nothing with just a furrow of his brow. He’s intense, but reserved. We know nothing about his character’s past, and we don’t know anything about his present either, except that he drives for the movies, moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals, and works at an auto body shop. Usually, I want to know more about a protagonist, but in this film, I found the mystery as intriguing as intended. The Driver reminded me a lot of the Man with No Name, Clint Eastwood’s character in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. He doesn’t have any real attachments, and doesn’t seem to want any. He holds everyone at arm’s length - including the viewer - and Ryan Gosling is so damn enigmatic that it was totally alright with me.
The film allows you to make assumptions about The Driver, purposefully telling you nothing about him, but giving you just enough to start to assume. I liked being surprised at the drastic shift of who he was - or who I thought he was - as the film propelled towards its climax. He isn’t a good guy, but he’s not really a bad guy either. I’m of the opinion that he was a psychopath. A psychopath that had been doing a fairly good job of living a normal, albeit detached life until he was tossed into a situation where a bit of insanity was necessary. From beginning to end, Drive sort of just presents him and says “here: believe what you will about him.” I liked that.
The rest of the performances were also top notch, and although I feel Carey Mulligan was miscast as Irene - the downtrodden sort-of single mother who gets more emotion out of The Driver than anyone else - she did brilliantly. I’m not sure many other actresses could have done so much with so little. Her face is perfect. In one scene, she’s walking behind The Driver as he carries her sleeping son, Benecio, to her apartment. The happiness on her face is so subtle, but it’s obvious. She was just fantastic. Bryan Cranston, as The Driver’s boss and only “friend” is great - you like him and empathize with him immediately. Christina Hendricks has a tiny role, but is spectacular in it - nothing like Joan from Mad Men. Albert Brooks is equal parts terrifying and enchanting and both at the same time, in a way you wouldn’t really believe. Ron Perlman and Oscar Issacs are awesome as well.
Joey and I went to see Drive on Saturday night, after I’d seen it on Friday. After we left the theater he said that he saw a lot of 80s Michael Mann in it, and I disagreed. I saw Bullitt, To Live in Die in L.A., Point Blank (the 60s Lee Marvin film, not the Danny Trejo one), a little Pulp Fiction and a lot of Thief - which I didn’t know Michael Mann directed until I IMDB’d it to ensure I was thinking of the right film. Michael Mann brings to my mind Public Enemies, Ali, Collateral, and Heat (you know, there’s a bit of Heat in Drive as well, come to think of it, especially when you compare Gosling and DeNiro’s performances). Anyway, Joey was right. Someone remind me to tell him that. Definitely some Michael Mann.
While it was obviously an homage, if you will, to eras of film long lost to us - Drive was new. It was original. It wasn’t a rip off. It took those bits and pieces of things we’ve seen before and blended them into something that we haven’t. It was exciting, and it was fun, and it was suspenseful and thrilling and above everything else: it was interesting.
Many movies, especially those that can be considered of the “action” genre, are only entertainment. Drive is art. I didn’t get a feeling of pretentiousness or trying too hard, and yet it managed to outshine just about every other film I’ve seen this year. That being said, it probably isn’t for everyone. Not everyone will appreciate that Gosling says fuck all during the film, or that there is a distinct lack of standard Michael Bay style action scenes, or the violence, or the almost spooky, synth-heavy soundtrack and score. Some will probably find the quiet intensity boring, the sequences of shy looks exchanged between Irene and The Driver to be tedious and pathetic, and the ambiguity of the main character frustrating.
Me, personally? I don’t remember being this in love with a movie since Inception.
*Two of Winding Refn’s earlier films, Bronson and Valhalla Rising are on Netflix Instant Watch for those interested.
**The soundtrack is really, really great. I downloaded it on iTunes before I even left the theater parking lot on Friday.