The first Vader of the year. Can't help it, I just love the work of Nicolas Winding Refn.
Every now and then something great happens in Hollywood. An interesting director makes enough great films overseas and he’s given a modest budget and a little star power and he gets to make whatever he wants out of a film. And then that film ends up playing on the big screen in an area as small as Perry County. I sat back unbelieving Sunday night as I watched Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film Drive and witnessed one of the best films of the year…and I didn’t have to drive an hour to see it.
Refn has been making quality films since 1996’s Pusher, and recently he made his finest film to date (in my opinion, of course) with 2008’s Bronson. His films are not easily digestible as they feature graphic violence, strange soundtracks, and plenty of awkward silences. Drive continues that tradition as it features all three of those elements. Because of this, many people might simply dismiss this movie as “weird.” That’s easy enough, especially since the previews make it out to be some hardcore action flick (it has action, but to call this an action movie is unfair).
Weird isn’t a bad thing, especially with some of the crap Hollywood churns out these days. Drive may not be a traditional film, but it has it where it counts. There are awkward silences and the soundtrack, which sounds like it belongs in an 80s thriller, may be out of left field, but it all comes together to make one stylish film.
Drive doesn’t seem so odd on the page, though. It’s about a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway man (Ryan Gosling) who falls for a damsel in distress (Carey Mulligan) but gets into trouble with the wrong men (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman). It’s your standard story of a low level criminal getting in way over his head. But it’s so much more than that thanks to what Refn and Gosling bring to the film.
Ryan Gosling has done well for himself lately, but he’s never really turned in a commanding physical performance. He’s stuck to these troubled characters that have issues operating in the real world. No problem there, since he handles that disconnected performance so well. In fact, he gives that same performance for much of Drive to the point that some people have speculated that his character is sociopathic. His strange, constant grin and ability to turn every moment into an awkward silence certainly makes for an interesting performance especially when he so seamlessly turns into a badass.
Gosling gets to go crazy in this film and it’s great. The film makes good use of his leather driving gloves and you can just feel (and hear) the tension every time he makes a fist. And every time he makes that fist you just know things are going to get violent. The violence is typical Refn: bloody, shocking, potentially disturbing…but perfectly reasonable for the story. The ultra-violence is acceptable for a film like this because it is meant to kick you in the face when you least expect it. Violence is standard in films these days but sometimes it can put in there just to placate the bloodthirsty hordes. Sure, those hordes will like Drive, but with this caveat, “It was awesome, but man, it was slow…and kind of weird.” Others will realize that the violence is there to shock you, not just entertain you. The scenes of violence are not treated trivially; they are intense. But they do look amazing (I never claimed I wasn’t part of the bloodthirsty hordes).
The title of the film may lead you to believe that the majority of the action of this film would take place on the road, but that is not the case. There are a few well crafted getaway/chase sequences, but this film isn’t exactly a full-on car movie, though there are plenty of cool shots of the dash with Gosling’s intent eyes in focus in the rearview. The title of the film is more about the drive of Gosling’s character than it is about the physical act of driving, however. Some may be disappointed by the lack of cars and all, but there should be plenty there to keep people entertained.
Drive also has the benefit of an amazing cast. Aside from Gosling, Mulligan does a fine job silently communicating with him in plenty of scenes and she certainly comes across as a woman worth fighting for. Bryan Cranston has a few good scenes as a mentor-type. Christina Hendricks has a decent, though small role. Perlman livens up the screen in his scenes. And Albert Brooks is the surprise of the movie as a menacing, though reasonable mobster.
If all of that wasn’t enough, then there are plenty of smaller elements to focus on with the film. The strange satin jacket emblazoned with a scorpion that Gosling sports in nearly every scene can add depth to the film when you factor in the reference to the fable “The Scorpion and the Frog.” Though the film is enjoyable by just leaving it alone and saying, “It’s just a jacket that’s meant to convey an almost 80s sensibility of the film.” That retro look along with the soundtrack is cool enough to keep things interesting as well.
Interesting is the word that should be used for Drive. The film can be looked at closely and it can be simply enjoyed. My suggestion: enjoy it simply at first, then stop and think about what you’ve just seen. There’s enough action and style to keep you entertained, but there’s also enough under the surface to keep you thinking of the film. That’s certainly the effect the film had on me and I can’t wait to watch it again.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
Gosling stomps a dude’s face until it is nothing! No comment really about this, just...wow.
That shotgun blast that disintegrated Christina Hendricks's head was ridiculous in all the right ways.
The Scorpion and the Frog is a fable about how the you can't change someone's nature. In the fable, it's the scorpion. In Drive, it's Gosling. He can't change, so even if he does survive that gut stab at the end (I believe he's dead, though), he still has to move on and keep driving.
Refn loves it when making a fist makes a sound...and I do, too.
Finally, I heaped insane amounts of love on this film and I am not alone. I'm sure the backlash has already begun, but you shouldn't let yourself be swayed by other critics or by the message board crowds. I loved it and apparently other people loved, but that didn't sway my opinion. Nicolas Winding Refn is who convinced me that this is the best film of the year so far.