Review: Drive

As of late, it seemed that the same old car heist genre was going to gasp and sputter its way to redundancy and death. For the past decade, the genre has undoubtedly been successful from a financial standpoint, but from an aesthetic and narrative perspective, they all look the same: The hot rod cars, the death defying chases, the drop dead gorgeous gals, and the protagonist with nothing to lose. From a visual standpoint, it is characterized by chaotic editing and overindulgent lighting and camera movement. It seemed impossible that anyone might be able to do anything to bring a new perspective. Enter Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Known for his wildly creative visual style and insistence on defying audience expectations, the auteur behind such aggressive films as Bronson and Valhalla Rising infuses the genre with his own understanding of cinema and turns in a completely unique and superior piece of filmmaking known as Drive.

At first glance, Drive may seem very much like many of its predecessors. It features a mysterious protagonist known only as “Driver,” who specializes in automotive work, both under the hood and behind the wheel. There’s a mother who becomes romantically linked with “Driver,” despite the fact that her husband has just returned from jail. There are mob bosses and gangsters involved, and of course, one last heist. In lesser hands, this film could have easily gone by the numbers of typical Hollywood thrillers. However, Refn’s assured view behind the camera allows for Drive to take unforeseen left turns in its narrative. Just when the film begins to follow in step with its predecessors, he takes the wheel and provides the audience with a new narrative development.

At the forefront of the film is Ryan Gosling as “Driver,” turning in one of his most nuanced and fine tuned performances. Gosling can be known to aggressively assert his personality into characters on occasion, but in Drive, his performance is wholly internalized. His “Driver” recalls other mysterious protagonists in cinema history, such as Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name as well as Alain Delon in Le Samourai. Very little is known about his past, and he never makes small talk. He is very strict about his two professions: stunt driver for Hollywood and getaway driver for Los Angeles’s crooks. One of the most distinctive characteristics of Drive is the relationship Driver has with the mother, Irene, admirably portrayed by Carey Mulligan. Where most films would exploit the relationship for the sake of on screen sexuality, Drive moves in the opposite direction. There is evident chemistry between “Driver” and Irene, but very little is said between them. Refn examines the subtleties instead. A glance. A turn of the head. A curl of the lips. This is true cinematic eroticism: what isn’t said, as opposed to what is. Any of the dialogue is merely subtext. The heart of their relationship culminates in one of the sexiest shots of the year. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know it when you see it. Rounding out the major players of the cast are the sly Bryan Cranston as the owner of the automotive garage “Driver” works at, and Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks as two middle level gangsters with whom “Driver” ends up getting in a tailspin with. Brooks is particularly menacing here, going against his typically comedic type, and Perlman is thoroughly entertaining as a wannabe Jewish gangster who owns a cheap Italian restaurant.

Though Drive is methodically paced, the protracted editing in some scenes serves to contrast the intensity of not only the film’s impressive car scenes, but also the unexpectedly violent moments you never see coming. The violence in the film is very brutal at times, but it always happens in a flash, quite reminiscent of recent Cronenberg, as opposed to Scorsese. Even when the car chases may appear to be the closest replica of their Hollywood counterparts, Refn changes the point of view from which they are perceived. For instance, the film’s sublime opening chase is solely filmed from the inside of the car, putting the audience right next to “Driver” as he attempts to evade the authorities. By withholding visual information from the audience about exactly where the cops are, Refn allows for every shot and cut to ooze with suspense. Visually, Drive is teeming with an aura akin to Michael Mann, but Refn nonetheless finds a way to allow his own voice to speak through. Many of the shot compositions are always interestingly framed, and the mis-en-scene serves to add subtext to each scene. There’s no mistaking Refn’s inclusion of an “Exit” sign behind “Driver” when he converses with Irene at her husband’s coming home party. Drive is just as much an aural treat as it is a visual one. The addition of the tiniest details in sound add to the suspense of some scenes, while extended silence adds to the simmering tension in others. Most distinctive is the phenomenal soundtrack based in synthesizers and electronica, fused with pop songs of yore. It may be the 21st century, but Gosling’s “Driver” is stuck in the 1980s.

In some ways, one might consider Drive to be the thinking man’s alternative to The Fast and Furious, but it is really so much more than that. The relationships in the film matter, and the visual style only enhances the understanding of the story. Perhaps Drive is a satire in some respects on the redundant car and action films of late, examining anything that is perceived to be important, and revising those cliches to fit its own needs. It may have been a while since the genre needed a tune up, but with Nicolas Winding Refn, it didn’t just get an inspection, he gave it a brand new engine.

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~ by romancinema on October 2, 2011.

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