Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac,
Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman
If you would have told me 5 years ago that one of my favorite movies of 2011 would be a movie about a getaway driver starring Ryan Gosling, the dude from “The Notebook.” I would have laughed in your face. Laughed, laughed, laughed.
We all know that feeling. Driving late at night, an endless stretch of road, thoughts swirling through our head, music playing from the stereo, it’s easy to lose yourself in your own ideas and feelings behind the wheel of a vehicle. What Ryan Gosling wanted to do was capture that feeling when he chose to adapt James Sallis’ pulpy crime novel “Drive” and when he handpicked danish director Nicolas Winding Refn,who after a brief encounter came to the same realization as Gosling about the tone of the film.
On paper the movie doesn’t sound like it would have that much depth. A character only known as Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a hollywood stuntman/mechanic with help of his friend/mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston), he also moonlights as a getaway driver. His rules are simple, he drives. He gives you a window of opportunity, he doesn’t get involved and doesn’t carry a weapon, he just drives. For the most part, he does his job well until he becomes smitten with the girl next door (Carrey Mulligan) and her son. Once her husband gets out of jail, he gets the driver get involved in a botched heist that also involves gangsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nico (Ron Perlman).
While this might sound like the plot of a B-action/revenge thriller from the 80’s/90’s the movie finds it’s depth in it’s simplicity. While it’s drawn from a novel that lends itself to be a straightforward action drama, the film shifts between a chase movie, a revenge drama, a love story/modern fairy tale, superhero origin story, love-letter to L.A., and a homage to the 1980’s.
The film is intoxicating and is a breath of fresh air to cinema. Ryan Gosling proves that he is more than just the guy from “The Notebook” in a standout performance that has it say more with his eyes and a toothpick in his mouth then any long-drawn out monologue could. While Gosling could have been a great character with lots of dialogue, he is even more involving by letting the audience invest in a character by just their expressions. People might complain about a lead character who doesn’t say much, but the whole movie I was reminded of Steve McQueen in “Bullitt.” A character that exuded coolness and gave nothing but stares and glances, but was still emotionally compelling and killer behind the wheel of a car.
Gosling carries the film but this film has one of the best supporting casts of the year. Every character feels equally fleshed out for a film with what on the surface seems one dimensional. Carey Mulligan is the one that could have benefited from more development, but her charm and bright-eyed stare is easy to see why Gosling’s character would develop affection for her, she is the definition of innocence. Bryan Cranston, has more of a toned down performance compared to Walter White on “Breaking Bad” but he is a great sidekick character to Gosling and great to see his dramatic range. The other standout performance next to Gosling is Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose, the Hollywood producer turns gangster is a hilarious actor cast smartly against type in a venomous role that chews up the screen everytime he appears, and is a great on-screen villain in a role he was born to play and Brooks savors every moment he can to be intimidating and violent. Small performances from Christina Hendricks and Perlman both leaving last impacts with limited screen-time.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (Known for Bronson and The Pusher trilogy) won best director at Cannes Film Festival for the film and rightly so. Refn and Gosling have a Scorcese-DeNiro relationship where Refn is the glue that holds together the film that escalates an already exceptional performance. The film begins with an amazingly shot, edited, and realistic chase sequence through the streets of Los Angeles showing that you don’t need big-budget effects to craft an intense action scene, on the flip-side there is second-act car chase is louder, faster, and takes place during the day and is equally well-shot and exhilarating. Refn easily has his most accomplished work featuring beautiful set design and dreamlike cinematography that compliments shots of Los Angeles painting the city in a light unlike any other film set in California. Sometimes it feels more like San Andreas from Grand Theft Auto than the real city itself. Refn and Cliff Martinez should also be applauded for an amazing score/soundtrack and sound-design. Moments of violence including fights, stabbings, gunshots etc. should be credited for their well-mixed sound adding to the already visceral violence giving an extra layer of intensity. A particular “Elevator” scene is the most memorable for the amazing direction, editing, and score coexisting to create a brilliant movie moment that goes from a beautifully romantic moment to an intense kill sequence.The Soundtrack and score will also probably be my favorite of the year including modern songs that echo the 80’s aesthetic the film is going for. Hearing some of the memorable, catchy songs featured in the film bring back a sense of nostalgia for 80’s action films that were highlighted by often cheesy pop/synth soundtracks. Composer Cliff Martinez is now 2 for 2 after an extremely memorable score for “Contagion.”
Drive has the aura of a 1960’s action film like “Le Samourai” or “Bullitt” set in a 1980’s Los Angeles reminiscent of “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Scarface.” (Yes, I know Scarface was in Miami.) The results are a gem of a film that is exciting as it is visually breathtaking. Refn and Gosling have crafted a action/crime drama for the art-house crowd, and a gritty, low-key, character study for the “Fast Five” audience. Many will be disappointed that the film is not what they expect when they walk in the theater. It is a far cry from the traditional one dimensional crime dramas that reach mainstream audiences and all the better for it. Movies can be entertaining without being ADD. (see “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”)
“Drive” is one of the best films of the year. Whether you are off-put by its violence, lack of action sequences, and quiet main character, the movie is undeniably absorbing. Sometimes you do put on music, drive down a long stretch of highway and become completely entranced by the experience and that’s the same way I felt watching “Drive.”