Theatrical Review: Drive

The Driver is a solitary man.  By day, he works in an auto shop and does part-time work for film industry as a stunt driver.  His boss and handler, Shannon, has a dream to put The Driver on the stock car racing circuit, but lacks the finances to do so.  Occasionally, through Shannon, The Driver takes the odd illegal job as a getaway driver.  He doesn’t want to know the people or the entire plan and offers his services up during a five-minute window of opportunity.  The Driver is very good at what he does, not only being an expert driver, but also having an intricate knowledge of the streets of Los Angeles.  This is what he does and who he is, nothing else seems to matter.  Then one day he meets Irene and Benecio, the mother and son who lives next door to him and his world is about to change dramatically.

That’s the basic premise to Drive, the latest film from star Ryan Gosling and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn.  Until this very weekend, I was unfamiliar with the films of Refn, but thanks to Netflix Instant Play, I watched two of his prior films in anticipation of Drive. The two movies I watched were Bronson and Valhalla Rising and to say that I was impressed is mildly stating the claim.  Bronson tells the story of the UK’s most violent criminal Charley Bronson and thanks to Refn’s skillful direction and a tour-de-force performance from actor Tom Hardy, it is an extremely impressive movie.  Valhalla Rising set during 1000 AD, tells the story of the mute warrior One Eye and the journey he takes aboard a Viking vessel to an unknown land where he discovers his true self.  It’s an incredibly strong visual sensation with a terrific performance from Mads Mikkelsen as One Eye.  I’d handily recommend Bronson immediately and I’d also recommend Valhalla Rising though mass opinion on the latter is pretty sharply divided.  It’s a movie that demands patience from it’s viewer and some might not be ready to give it.  Regardless, after seeing both, and seeing the initial trailer to Drive, I honestly couldn’t wait to see this film.

While I enjoyed Drive quite a bit, I think I got my expectations up a little too high.  Now that’s no knock on the film by any means, but after what I saw with both Bronson and Valhalla Rising I was expecting to see something a little more “out there” with Drive just based on those two movies.  Drive is more conventional than what I thought it would be at least on it’s initial viewing, though I expect that to change for me when I see it again down the road.  Even though I’ve labelled it as “conventional” that’s not to say that it isn’t engaging in the slightest, it really is a good movie.

Refn has said that he saw his and Gosling’s pairing in this to sort of be like the pairings of Peter Yates and Steve McQueen in Bullitt or Lee Marvin and John Boorman in Point Blank. Those two movies are certainly high marks to shoot for and yes, there’s certainly echoes of both in Drive. To me though, I saw more similarities with Michael Mann’s Thief and William Friedkin’s To Live And Die in L.A. and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, those are two terrific films.

Drive essentially takes Refn’s style and mixes it with Hollywood convention, and I’d hoped it would’ve ventured further into the art house than what it did, though for some viewers, it still might be going to far.  This is a slow burn noir thriller mixed with complex character study. It’s deliberately paced to take the time to let us get to know The Driver so that it’s moments of action and violence really do stand out.  They certainly do, in particular with two sequences:  one after a job gone wrong and another with The Driver and Irene in an elevator.  These are real turning points in the film where are main character’s world has literally turned upside down and he uses extreme methods to try and set them right.  They’re real telling moments for the character of The Driver as they basically say that this character can’t possibly ever have the moments of peace and change that he thought he might get from meeting Irene and Benecio.

Drive certainly has a great look to it, reveling in it’s 80s homage, and Refn certainly shows great restraint with a lot of his choices.  He doesn’t go overboard with excessive sound or overly flashy visuals, except for those few moments when The Driver’s world explodes.  Last week, I praised the work of composer Cliff Martinez in the movie Contagion. Martinez is back again as the composer for Drive and he does an equally exceptional job here as well, coming close to bringing a feel of having Tangerine Dream doing the music for the movie.

Ryan Gosling (simply credited as Driver) isn’t exactly the actor that I’d picture making a movie like this, but he certainly does do a fine job.  Conscious choices were made with having The Driver have little dialogue and letting Gosling’s face tell the story.  It’s very effective with one moment going from a look of tranquility that he didn’t think he could ever have and then going to another scene with his face soaked in blood that really does show the true nature of the character.  To me, it’s obvious that he really enjoyed working with Refn, so much so that they’re already set to do another film together and reportedly both are talking about a re-imaging of the 70s science fiction film Logan’s Run (and personally, I hope they get the chance to do it). It’s a strong performance from Gosling and he certainly does carry the movie.

Gosling’s got a lot of great support.  Carey Mulligan plays Irene and she and Gosling have some very nice chemistry together.  Her innocent features just furthers the notion that she is the ideal that The Driver is searching for.  The great Bryan Cranston plays The Driver’s handler, Shannon and he’s terrific here with a lot of body language to his character that almost suggests that he’s channeling the late, great Jack Lemmon to some respect.  Oscar Isaac plays Standard, Irene’s husband who’s just been released from prison and still finds himself in a lot of trouble.  While Isaac is only in the movie for a short period, he has quite a difficult job and that’s establishing himself as this important figure in Irene and Benecio’s lives, making himself sympathetic to the audience, and then building a friendship of sorts with The Driver.  He does a great job and I’d only wished that there might’ve been at least one more scene for him to help him more further things along.

Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks play the villains of the piece, NIno and Bernie Rose respectively.  Perlman’s menacing enough, but don’t go into this expecting the same sort of gravity that he has with Sons of Anarchy. At first he seems as though he’s going to be the real villainous force here, but he’s not.  That’s reserved for Albert Brooks.  As we’re first introduced to Bernie, this almost seems as though it’s going to be a sort of “by-the-numbers” bit of business from Brooks, but as we get further along, he reveals a real venality and that was exciting to see.

I certainly do recommend Drive though I have to admit my expectations were quite a bit higher than they should’ve been. After having been so struck by his other films, I was hoping for more of the same with Drive. Still, it’s a great, more mainstream introduction for a mass audience to director Nicolas Winding Refn who to me anyway, is one of those directors to watch in the future.  From his past work, Refn has shown that he has moments that can certainly be compared to directors like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Lars von Trier.  With Drive I can now add Michael Mann and William Friedkin to that list.  There’s a lot of style to Drive but it’s also balanced with a great deal of substance and while I wasn’t as struck by it as I thought I would be, I still think it’s well worth seeing.