Drive (2011)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

    

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Kaden Leos, Russ Tamblyn.
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Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Rating: R
Running Time: 100 Minutes

Release Date: September 16, 2011
Home Video Release Date: TBD
Box Office: $33.4 Million
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Bold Films, Odd Lot Entertainment, Drive Film Holdings, Marc Platt Productions, Seed Productions, and FilmDistrict.

Written by: Hossein Amini, adapted from the novel of the same name by James Sallis.

 

“My hands are a little dirty.” – The Driver (Ryan Gosling).

After winning the Best Director prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the long-anticipated “Drive”, from Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn, is a stylish and innovative blood-soaked cerebral assault of a film.  Anchored by another compelling Ryan Gosling performance, and blessed with an impressive cast of supporting players, “Drive”  is certainly one of the most vivid and eye-opening films I have seen released on a wide-scale in 2011.  How much you can tolerate of its ego, temperament, and graphic violence will likely serve as the main factors in determining whether you will like the film or not.

Gosling shines here, playing a man known only as “The Driver”.  Working in and around the Los Angeles/Hollywood movie scene as an everyday mechanic for a father-like figure named Shannon (Bryan Cranston), Driver also takes assignments as a stunt driver on movie sets.  Aided by Shannon’s connections in the movie business, Driver’s incredible prowess and talent behind the wheel virtually guarantees that when Driver is brought on set for a stunt, he will deliver each and every time.

And yet despite working two jobs, Driver assumes a secretive third job as a getaway driver.  A man of few words, his rules are very simple.  He has the car parked outside the location that his employers will be working from.  He allows them five minutes.  If they are running late, he leaves.  No names are exchanged and Driver will only work with clients one time.  The less he knows the better.

Following a recent late night job, Driver returns home to find a new neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), now living in an apartment at the end of his hall.  The Driver is as cordial as a man who rarely speaks could ever be and he soon finds himself spending a significant amount of time with Irene and Benicio.  Over the course of time, we learn that Irene and Benicio are living alone because Irene’s husband and Benicio’s father, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is incarcerated for making “terrible mistakes.”

As Standard is skeptical of Irene’s new friend, he nonetheless welcomes Driver into his home and soon reveals to Driver that he owes “protection money” to folks on the inside.  Knowing a little bit, Standard seeks out Driver’s help in serving as the getaway driver for a pawn shop heist that should score just enough money to pay back the debt and make the trouble go away for good.

As Driver immerses himself in an increasingly dangerous situation, Shannon has rekindled an old friendship with former Hollywood producer and multimillionaire, Bernie Ross (Albert Brooks).  Shannon has his eyes on investing in a stock car and having Driver use his considerable talents to race the car.  Liking the plan, Ross buys in to the proposal, excited at the opportunity to spend his money in new and exciting ways.  Ross also has a tight-knit business relationship with a local pizzeria owner and mob boss, Nino (Ron Perlman), who has a storied history with Shannon.

In key moments, “Drive” feels revelatory.  The film is meticulously paced with Nicholas Winding Refn living in the pauses between the dialogue, the anxiety of situations, and the uneasiness of the criminal mind.  For much of the film’s first half, Refn dials back significantly on the action and suspense, ratcheting up the tension found in seemingly normal-ish interactions.  As you take delight in seeing Driver befriend and warm to Irene and especially Benicio, a sense of dread curtains over each “nice” moment.  Refn masterfully creates the backdrop and the mood that his morality tale will eventually play out in.

Without revealing much, the film contorts its tempo, rhythm, and pacing when Driver waits in the car for the pawn shop heist to go down.  Needless to say, things do not go nearly as planned, and for Driver, an unpleasant underworld quickly emerges, placing Driver in tense and unrelenting situations which escalate in their danger and horror.

After seeing “Drive” and Nicholas Winding Refn’s stateside breakthough, “Bronson”, I have no hesitancy in praising his vision, his bravery, and his uncompromised approach in telling stories in a jaw-dropping way.  Refn immerses you into his world with each shot, each line, and a brilliant sense of color, music, and atmosphere.  “Drive” captures the feel of those mid-1980′s vigilante action movies with shots of Driver cruising the streets, matchstick embedded in the corner of his mouth, while an early 80s-style synth pop score throbs and pulsates coolness and confidence in scene after scene.

But Refn, at times, simply cannot help himself and almost loses control of this Frankenstein he has created.  When the film turns violent, some of the graphic and cringeworthy moments work effectively and jolt you into discomfort.  Characters true motivations are revealed and some characters realize things within them they never knew existed.  And yet, a few instances of violence seem to exist only as a means to exist.  One character in particular is introduced and grotesquely offed so quickly, that you wonder if the character’s only purpose in the film was to endure a nasty demise.  And an argument can be made that the violence is strangely inconsistent, in turn making one ponder whether the violence serves any actual purpose at all.  Is Refn toying with his audience?  Yeah, maybe.  Am I happy with him for doing so?  I’m simply not sure.

What Nicholas Winding Refn does possess is audacious vision and the ability to stop you in your tracks when watching his films.  Carey Mulligan is a nice counterweight to Gosling’s Driver, able to break his walls down just enough to induce some sensitivity and kindness to her and her son.  Albert Brooks plays effectively against type as a ruthless antagonist in the film, equally annoyed and aggravated that those around him never measure up.  Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston shine but Oscar Isaac and “Mad Men”‘s Christina Hendricks are wasted in underdeveloped roles.  The key to this all succeeding is Ryan Gosling, who stacks up this intense and brooding role with his overly confident lothario from “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” and his savvy political campaign advisor in “The Ides of March”.  Gosling is arguably the finest actor working today and “Drive” is a complex character he pulls off masterfully.

For those expecting traditional action “Drive” will disappoint.  For those who are not fans of movies which exhibit a slow burn narrative and/or possess alarming violence, “Drive” will not be your thing.  For me, I admired most of the places Nicholas Winding Refn took his film.  Consistently unpredictable and defiantly not ordinary, “Drive” is undoubtedly a film destined to attain a cult following and be remembered and dissected by cinephiles and movie fans the world over in the next several years.  Whether it passes a mainstream sniff test or not is a whole other question entirely.

Should I See It?

YES

Bold, unique, and distinctively throwback, “Drive” is a stylish action thriller that is much different than the standard single man action movies we have grown accustomed to.

Director Refn infuses an uneasiness in every scene which matches the escalating anxiety that these characters experience.  In many ways, “Drive” is terrific in placing the viewer in the heart of the randomness of the circumstances surrounding Driver.  The atmosphere is almost visible here.

The cast all are great and act the heck out of this thing, with the enigmatic Ryan Gosling leading the way in a completely different role than anything we have seen him in thus far.  Albert Brooks may be garnering Oscar buzz and Cranston, Perlman, and Mulligan are all terrific, but this is another career-making turn from Gosling.  He simply cannot miss right now.

NO

If you wandered into this expecting “The Transporter” or another car-driven action film, you will be completely shocked and surprised.  The first 30-40 minutes of the film position as markedly different in tone and pace when compared to the wild and unhinged second half.  This dysfunction in telling the story may bore some viewers and make others impatient.

Shying away from nothing, “Drive” is excessively violent and many of the violent scenes occur in unpredictable and unanticipated circumstances.  This is clearly a film not for the squeamish in any way, shape, or form.

The stylishness of the film, the nod-and-wink to films of years past, and the incessant and almost goofy 80s-style synth pop score will come off as pretentious and too “artsy” for some viewers to ever accept.

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