A film review by Craig J. Koban September 19, 2011

Rank:  #6

DRIVE jjjj

2011, R, 100 mins.

Ryan Gosling: Driver / Carey Mulligan: Irene / Bryan Cranston: Shannon / Albert Brooks: Bernie Rose / Oscar Isaac: Standard / Ron Perlman: Nino /  Christina Hendricks: Blanche

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn / Written by Hossein Amini, based on James Sallis' novella

Just when you thought there was nothing to save us from the perfunctory eye, ear, and brain punishing extremes of disposable action films, along comes DRIVE to wake us all up from lethargy. 

The film, directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (BRONSON), does offer up what many are expecting: a high-octane, rip-roaring, and wickedly lurid splatterhouse thriller filled with wanton graphic violence and bloodletting.  But what many will not see coming is its European aesthetic, which makes it come off as that much more original.  DRIVE is a B-grade grindhouse action film made with an impeccable A-grade art house artifice.  As an antidote for those countless filmgoers that have been hospitalized with migraines because of Michael Bayian sensory overload, then the film is a most welcoming relief. 

DRIVE has been somewhat marginalized as a style-over-substance effort, but those critics miss the point.  The film is purposely an exercise in style: it’s all about generating mood, atmosphere, and creating tension and suspense through its style without going to the hyperactive extremes of using queasy cam cinematography or seizure inducing editing.  One critic called the film “self-consciously retro”, which is apt:  DRIVE, right from the very beginning, is a love ballad to not only 70’s action fare, but also to the pop culture cinematic landscape of the 80’s.  The film opens with neon-bright handwritten credits and a jazzy, electronic, synthesized music track that joyously echoes what came before it 30 years earlier.  Within a few minutes we know that we are not baring witness to a typical, audience-placating action flick. 

When not being a tribute to hip and colorful 80’s chic, the $13 million budgeted DRIVE emerges as a compelling marriage of so many other divergent influences.  The film is like the unholy cinematic conjoining of the pulp fiction eccentricities of a Quentin Tarantino, the cold, detached, and assured filmmaking precision of a Michael Mann, and the haunting peculiarity of a David Lynch.  It also echoes heists-gone-horribly-afoul genres and pays homage to such cult action hits like TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and the sub-genre of car films like BULLIT.  Hell, even DRIVE’s main anti-hero could be easily compared to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name from the Sergio Leone’s western film canon.  Perhaps like Tarantino before him, Refn takes great relish in acknowledging his movie antecedents, but he never lets his fanboy respect for them interfere with him audaciously churning up all of these ingredients to form a cocktail that his uniquely his own. 

DRIVE, based on James Sallis’ 2005 book, is about a nameless man enigmatically referred to only as Driver (Ryan Gosling), a completely unflappable and stone cold figure that, by day, works as a stunt performer for movies and, by night, is a freelance wheelman that provides a vehicle for his criminal customers during there various nocturnal misdeeds.  When not working for the movie studios and engaging in clandestine getaway missions, Driver spends his other free time at a local garage run by Shannon (BREAKING BAD’s great Bryan Cranston, finally getting a meaty film role to sink his teeth into). Beyond that, Driver is a compellingly mysterious presence in the film, whose only real discernable character traits are his satin jacket with large scorpion logo on the back, his sunglasses, his driver gloves, and a toothpick that he seems orally fixated on throughout.  He apparently has no family, no friends, and no readily explained rationale for what he does and how he acts.  Driver is, like many of the iconic heroes of film fiction, embellished by how he behaves and not by who he is.  It’s not so important that we understand what makes him tick; all we need to know is that he’s an archetype and an existentialist anti-hero. 



Humanity does creep through his icy and impenetrable façade, though: Driver finds himself drawn to an attractive and vulnerable neighbor, Irene (played with the typical refined sincerity by Carey Mulligan), and even when he grows closer to her and her son, she reveals that her imprisoned boyfriend is coming home soon.  Before he does, Driver manages to find some modest enjoyment with Irene in his otherwise unhappy and lonely existence.  Things get really dicey when the boyfriend returns and gets Driver inadvertently involved in a getaway mission – partially to secure the safety of Irene and her son  - that goes horribly afoul.  Concurrent to this is Shannon getting involved with some shady business dealings with some mob thugs, Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Pearlman) that, whether he likes it or not, will involve the Driver in one form or another. 

Something needs to be said about how Refn and his cinematographer Netwon Thomas Sigel stage action.  How utterly refreshing is it to see an action film that uses clean and precise editing and smooth camera work to slowly and methodically build up scenes to a fever pitch?  Few films I’ve seen recently have used silence and stillness as well as this one does to foster a sense of impending dread: the film unnerves us with being quiet so often and then...just explodes out.  Just consider the film’s opening action sequence, one of the best realized of the year, as Driver engages in a getaway chase down the L.A. streets that has him use a stopwatch, a police band radio, a radio broadcast of a local sports game, and, yup, some hardcore, pedal-to-the-metal driving.  There are later scenes when the Driver’s vehicle itself is almost a predatory beast stalking its prey, which Refn shoots with a minimalist eye for composition, an editorial economy, and accompanies it with Cliff Martinez’s swiftly confident and ultra-cool electronic music score.      

The performances are collectively revitalizing and strong here too:  Mulligan brings a humanity and tenderness to the violent proceedings (she’s note perfect) and Cranston is razor sharp as the mechanic/agent that gets in way over his head.  Ron Pearlman is agreeably hostile, ill mannered and tempered as a Jewish pizzeria owner that wants to be an Italian Mafioso.  But then - hold on! - comes the juicily off-centered, outside-of-the-box casting of Albert Brooks (!) as Bernie, and there has not been a more transfixing or scary villain in a film in awhile.  What’s scary about Bernie is his amiable, fatherly old man charm and soft-spoken sophistication, but beneath that lurks an animal with a thirst for unapologetic gory vengeance.  So many other actors come to mind for a part like this, but Brooks’ participation here is the revelatory coup de grace for DRIVE. 

And speaking of unlikely or nonconformist casting…how about Ryan Gosling?  He seems like the least likely performer to headline an action thriller, not to mention that he’s not drawn from the same massively muscle-bounded, testosterone-infused killing machines that punctuate action films of yesteryear.  With a lesser actor, Driver could have been a one-note and unintentionally hilarious cartoon character, but Gosling – one of the finest young actors in contemporary cinema – knows just how to modulate Driver as a figure of calm, collected, but unnerving ferocity.  The miracle of Gosling’s performance is how he establishes this character with so little dialogue: Driver does not speak much, if anything, throughout the film, but Gosling lets his eyes, a penetrating stare, and simple mannerisms say volumes about what this guy’s all about.  And, yeah, this dude is a scarily formidable opponent (just watch a nasty little bit of business in an elevator and you’ll see what I mean). 

DRIVE was all the rage back at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, which unanimously lauded it with accolades and awarded Refn with its Best Director honor.  I can see why.  DRIVE is unlike any other recent action thriller I’ve seen: it’s part film noir, part brain and guts spewing revenge caper, part hard edged neo-1980’s action flick, and part midnight grindhouse exploitation.  Yet, in the end, it contains all kinds of fearless inventiveness, brazen and propulsive technique, and, most importantly, it shows a fondness and respect for its craft and artifice that seems to be woefully lacking in the give-the-audience-what-we’ve-given-them-before nihilism that has crept into too many disposable Hollywood action films.  Like PULP FICTION, DRIVE shows a unique filmmaking voice at the helm that not only wants to stir things up and slap the status quo in the face, but the director also wants his film to reflect a knowledge of past films while, most crucially, displaying a reverence for literate-minded and patient filmgoers.  Not too many dime-a-dozen actioneers pull that off, but DRIVE does.

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