Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has made just a handful of films with most staying under the radar of most of the general film-going public. He first caught the attention of indie film fans with his Pusher Trilogy over in Denmark, but he really caught the attention of these fans with his explosive collaboration with Tom Hardy on the Bronson biopic. He would follow that film with the violent existentialist Viking film Valhalla Rising. It would take another major collaboration with another rising star in Ryan Gosling for Winding Refn to finally have his major breakout film which has caught the attention of not just the indie film fans and cineaste crowd, but the general public at-large.
Drive was first screened over at this year’s 2011 Cannes Film Festival where it premiered “in competition” for the Palme d’Or. While the film didn’t win the top prize for best film at Cannes it didn’t garner Nicolas Winding Refn “Best Director” award and his work on this film more than merits such an accolade. The film would begin to screen at other major film festivals before landing at the Toronto International Film Festival before making it’s major public release in North America. Everywhere the film went the consensus reaction to the film has ranged from positive to calls for the film as one of 2011’s best.
So, it would seem most everyone has been quite positive with their reaction to Refn’s Drive. Is this film just another indie arthouse title which the elitist film fans have begun to hype up to levels that would border on cosmic? Or is this film actually as good as it has been talked up to be by such film fans and those of the general public who have seen it? I think the answer lies somewhere in-between.
Drive has been called an action-drama to crime-thriller to film noir and even an existentialist meditation of the film variety. Some have even called it a modern urban fairy tale from the many traditional tropes and themes inherent in fairy tales. The film actually seems to defy genre labels as it’s all those and even more. Nicolas Winding Refn has made a film with so much variety in its cinematic DNA from other classic films and storytelling styles that watching the film once is not enough to find them all.
The film makes a strong statement with it’s introduction of the character who remains nameless but could be called “The Driver” or “The Kid”. Ryan Gosling’s performance in this opening sequence will set the foundation for his character from beginning to end. His driver role is not much for chit-chat and unnecessary talking with those who have hired him to be their expert getaway driver. He’s meticulous with his equipment and intractable when it comes to the rules he has set down for his clients. He would be theirs for the five minutes they need him to drive them away from their criminal acts. Whatever they do before or after those five minutes doesn’t matter to him and he sticks to this rule explicitly. Another rule which he lays down is that he will not be carrying a firearm. These rules have had some audiences bring to mind Jason Statham’s Transporter character and they would not be totally wrong to say so. What Gosling’s driver has over Statham’s is the air of realism to the role. It’s a realism that borders on hyper-reality as the film moves on to it’s climactic conclusion, but real nonetheless. Gosling’s “driver” will not do extensive and elaborate fighting skills the way Statham’s would.
The film would move from it’s powerful introduction and into a much more calm and somewhat serene section as the nameless driver gradually gets to know his next door neighbor in the form of Irene as played by Carey Mulligan. Their relationship will form the core of the film’s narrative and it’s the driver’s growing affection not just for Irene but her young son that would dictate some of the decisions he would make right up to the end of the film. It’s a relationship built not on extensive dialogue banter but mostly on meaningful glances and silent understanding between two characters who seem to have found a kindred kinship between them. It’s this growing relationship between the two and Irene’s son which almost look like a familial unit forming until the return of Irene’s incarcerated and newly-released husband Standard. This is a character played by Oscar Isaac as a man desperate to take full advantage of his last chance at normalcy and redemption, but ultimately doomed to fail.
Standard doesn’t just become the only wrench in the happy life Gosling’s character seems to want to have with Irene and her son. Into the picture also happens to come in is his mentor and business partner Shannon (Bryan Cranston doing a great job as the good-natured, but opportunistic fool character many Shakespearean tragedies always seem to have) and Shannon’s even seedier acquaintances in Hollywood mogul-turned-mob boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks in a chilling performance) and his more boisterous, but not as smart partner in Nino (Ron Perlman).
The film seems to settle on the low gears for the first hour of the film, but it’s during a botched robbery attempt where the driver becomes embroiled in that Drive finally moves into the high gears and stays there until the very end. Refn’s decision to use the first hour to round out and build the characters in this film definitely pays off in the end. The audience becomes quite clear as to who the players are and what motivates them to do what they do the rest of the film. Even the most secondary and tertiary roles in this film has a part to play. Even Christina Hendricks in the role of a low-level moll to a gang of criminals gets to have her time to shine if just briefly.
Once the narrative shifts from character study to an almost Cronenbergian exercise in violence and brutality does the film finally able to hook in the last few audiences who may have still been iffy about Drive. Not to say that the final 45-minutes of the film was a non-stop action film, but it does move at a consistently higher gear pace than the first hour. We see the driver having to show to the audience that he’s not just an expert wheelman for Hollywood (stunt driver by day) and the criminal underground (getaway driver by night). It serves the film well that Gosling’s character has the barest minimum of lines of dialogue. We see all we need to know about this character through his behavior that brings to mind roles played by such past luminaries as Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood.
Most likely it would be in the second half of the film that should satisfy the action junkies. While the action scenes are not of the Michael Bay-type they do show that Refn has a fine grasp of what makes an action scene thrilling. Whether the scene calls for some of the most well-done car chase on film since Frankenheimer showed everyone how to properly do it in Ronin or scenes of sudden brutal violence which calls to mind similar scenes from Cronenberg’s last two films (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises). Both types of action were done efficiently with little to no glamour to gloss over things. The burst of violence actually adds to the mystique of Gosling’s “Man With No Name” role. One particular scene in the apartment elevator where Gosling, Mulligan and a goon sent by the mob makes for one of the best scenes in the film and of 2011.
As much as these scenes of action and violence will be the ones to get the most attention from the general film-going public in the end it’s the excellent screenplay by Hossein Amini of the James Sallis’ novel of the same name which really holds everything together in conjunction with some top-notch performances from everyone involved. The film makes or breaks itself on Gosling’s performance as the driver and he delivers on all cylinders. His performance was quite reminiscent of past performances such as James Caan as Frank in Michael Mann’s Thief, Steve McQueen also as Frank in Bullitt, but in my opinion Gosling’s work in this film brings to mind young Clint Eastwood as “The Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy. Both characters were the type to let their actions speak for them and were both full of quiet confidence not to mention restrained violence which would erupt when needed.
Much has been said about Albert Brooks’ turn as the mob boss Bernie Rose. how the role was quite the 180-degrees from people’s perception of the actor who usually did comedic roles. I say that Albert Brooks always had a dark side to his comedic talent. I mean he was and is megamaniacal villain Hank Scorpio from The Simpsons. In all seriousness, Brooks’ as the mob boss was the other pillar which held all the other performances focused. In fact, Gosling’s character and Brook’s Bernie Rose could almost be considered mirror-images of each other. They were characters who had found their place in the world and the role they would play and didn’t struggle against it. Everyone else in the film struggled against their lot in life. It was also these characters who had the bulk of the film’s dialogue.
Drive has been hyped (for some overhyped) since it first premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but it’s one of those rare films which has more than earned and surpassed the hype which has preceded it’s general release to the general public. It’s a film which bucks traditional genre labels by combining the themes, ideas and foundations from many different film and storytelling genres. For fans of action there’s enough thrilling action to sate them. For those who are fans of film noir this film definitely carries within it the DNA set down by the film noir of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. For some who wish to watch a film which explore existential themes then Refn’s film has that too. In the end, Drive manages to be a film which caters to so many different audiences without ever pandering to them or dumbing the story down. It’s a film made by a filmmaker who continues to impress and who has made his best film to date.
Drive is a film that is not for everyone, but it’s also a film that everyone should see and experience at least once. It is also one of the year’s best films and, so far, my top film of 2011.