Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman
Running Time: 100 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
I guess there really is a first time for everything. Watching Drive I was so shocked by the nature of the violence I nearly had to turn away. This seems like a strange reaction given there isn't necessarily a huge amount. Many movies have more. It's all about context. Slow, methodical and hypnotizing, the film builds a groundswell of tension, meticulously exploring every character and emotion until the violence finally arrives. And when it arrives, it's scary as hell. Because we care about the characters, the over-the-top carnage becomes that much more unsettling. Half set-up, the other half pay-off, director Nicolas Winding Refn uses spare parts from decades past to construct a compelling crime drama that's substance is its style. A likely modern classic that actually places demands on its audience, it's a virtual a love letter to the movies that couldn't come at a better time. Those claiming the film's enamored with its own coolness aren't completely wrong, just neglect to mention it earns the right by actually being that cool.
Far from your typical action thriller it stars Ryan Gosling whose nameless Driver finds himself at the center of a gathering storm. The plot is as bare bones as it gets, relying on a unfortunate coincidence that spirals out of control. As a mechanic and part-time stunt driver for B-movies who moonlights as a getaway man, Driver's precision and attention to detail is on full display in a brilliant prologue where he helps two burglars evade the cops. The entire sequence, set to Cliff Martinez's retro infused synthesizer score lays out the ground rules and takes us into his isolated world, soon to be shattered. Just as he falls hard for his new neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and befriends her young son Benecio (Kaden Leos), her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison and wants to make amends, but he's made a few enemies who are now threatening his family's safety. Out of unspoken loyalty to Irene and Benecio, Driver agrees to a dangerous robbery that goes horribly wrong, engulfing him in a cat-and-mouse game where he must risk his life to protect them. At the same time he's also recruited to do some racing for friend and boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who makes a crooked deal with former movie producer Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his sleazy associate Nino (Ron Perlman).
When you strip the narrative down to its bare essentials it's a crime thriller populated with the kinds of characters we're used to seeing take a backseat to computer generated effects, high-speed chases and explosions. We get dozens of those every year, some worse than others, with only a few standing out from the pack. Refn instead takes a methodical, atmospheric approach and there's a good chance more casual moviegoers used to being slammed with action in the face at a mile a minute will find it slow and boring. They're entitled to their opinion, but may want to consider the alternative which would have provided a quick high before completely fading from the memory. If anything, this is the kind of film guaranteed to grow in stature over repeated viewings since it's only after you've witnessed the mayhem unleashed in the second half does everything leading up to it seem that much more tragic.
Driver is an action hero in the mold of a Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood in that he lets his actions do the talking but Gosling does something different with the character that goes well beyond that. He suggests Driver could be a shy introvert that behaves how he does not as a tactic, but because it's who he is. You get the impression something may even be socially off with him and that the emotional connection he forms with this mother and her son could be the closest thing he's had to a real connection with anyone in his life. In fact, he's so quiet and reserved there are moments where we question whether he has feelings for Irene at all beyond just helping, and if he does, whether he's interested or even capable of acting on them. There are a lot of ways to read their relationship and it helps having two top pros in Gosling and Mulligan, conveying more in long stretches of silence than most other actors can with pages of dialogue. Just him stopping over at her apartment for a glass of water feels like an epic event.
While Gosling isn't big in stature, he registers just the right kind of intensity for the role, never making Driver seem flustered, even when he's delivering or receiving the bloodiest of beatdowns. One of the biggest downfalls of recent action movies is the rise of the "pretty boy" plugged in as an insufficient lead to sell tickets instead of kick ass. He proves here beyond a doubt he isn't that and after teetering on the brink of super greatness for a while now, gives the performance that pushes him over the edge into the upper echelon, solidifying him among the best of his generation. Many have already pointed out that Mulligan seems miscast as Irene and that's exactly the point. It's an intentional miscast meant to throw us off balance as no one would expect the actress who radiates as much warmth and innocence to be trapped in the middle of this dirty, sadistic L.A. underworld. Had anyone else played the role it's likely I wouldn't have cared but her presence transforms a part that's too often one-dimensional in crime thrillers. It's no mystery why Driver seems to instantly fall for her and is willing to sacrifice everything to keep her and Benecio safe.
Cast even more heavily against type, legendary comedian Albert Brooks is absolutely terrifying as mob boss Bernie Rose. He's only in a few choice scenes, but boy are they disturbing, especially one he shares with Cranston so tense it's almost difficult to watch. Abandoning his usual comic persona, his character's the embodiment of pure evil and his slick, cold, business-like demeanor is the antithesis of Gosling's everyman hero. Given the rare opportunity to sink his teeth into a vastly different kind of role, it's a thrill seeing Brooks subvert expectations, providing an uncomfortable contrast in a film that completely revolving around uncomfortable contrasts. It wouldn't be off the mark to describe it as an 80's style romance that careens into blood soaked tragedy. That Refn can make those two wildly divergent genres co-exist in perfect harmony is perplexing but the neon pink opening titles and retro electronic pop soundtrack (featuring Kavinsky's "Night Call" and even more memorably College's "A Real Hero") not only fit right in, but feel just as integral to the story as the characters themselves.
This is exactly the kind of movie you can picture Quentin Tarantino kicking himself for not attempting. Could he do it as well? Possibly, but he'd have to curb his penchant for having his characters talk about how cool it is they're in it rather than building tension and suspense. This is the result when the right director, cast and material all come together at once, and it's poor box office performance isn't a huge surprise given the polarizing risks Refn takes. It's just too challenging, representing the type of film mainstream audiences have been programmed to hate after being weened on truckloads of generic Hollywood garbage each year. Now when something's finally done right, it feels wrong, if only for daring to be different. Drawing from a myriad of influences that suggest it was transported from another era, Drive still feels wholly authentic and original, proving that action and violence mean little without an investment in the characters.