I don’t normally shill for movies and beg audiences to go see them. With Nicolas Winding Refn’s gorgeous and immersive genre picture, Drive, I’ll make an exception. If you are weary of plotless action movies with one-note characters, incomprehensible sequences, bland scripts, and direction that merely jumps from set piece to set piece, Drive will cleanse your palate. It is moody, stylish, funny, insanely violent, and most importantly, cool. The only way for more genre pictures to be thoughtfully made is to vocally support those that are and help them become hits. I want to live in a world with more Drives.
A Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) works as a contract driver for criminals on the side. After the heists, he drives them to safety– he doesn’t carry a gun, he doesn’t partake in the criminal activity, he just drives. He meets and begins growing fond of his new neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio. The driver’s boss (Bryan Cranston) wants him to get into stock car racing, so he asks for investment from Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a one-time Hollywood producer turned gangster who runs a racket with local mobster Nino (Ron Perlman). When Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) gets out of jail, and thugs are threatening Irene and Benicio, the driver offers his services to the husband to help ensure his family’s protection… but things don’t work out the way the driver planned.
This film is a triumph primarily because of its direction– never have I seen a car film look so artfully done. Refn has every frame of Drive looking so immaculately lit, immaculately conceived, immaculately shot, that you can hang any frame on the wall at your house. In a world that awards ADD/MTV moviegoers, here is a film that takes its time and finds the art in the action, the violence, the suspense. Careful attention is paid to sound, and the layers of sound in this film, from ticking clocks to shifting gears to the synth-heavy music (without question the best use of music in a film all year), create the unique world of the driver. People who saw Refn’s film Valhalla Rising know that he is interested in immersive, visceral experiences, and every technical aspect of this film is award-worthy, sucking you into this noirish LA world of our protagonist.
Drive also contains long sequences of silence, as the driver doesn’t talk much in the movie. For that, you need a charismatic and intense actor, and there isn’t a better young actor working today than Ryan Gosling. He definitely brings to mind names like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Steve McQueen in this role, both because of his looks and his presence. Few young actors have the ability to suggest so much with their eyes, to use body language and a straight face to connect to the other actors. The chemistry between Gosling and Mulligan is palpable from the first moment they lay eyes on one another. Every actor in the piece does strong work– Albert Brooks shows a new side to himself in a role that may get him Oscar buzz, Perlman and Isaac both have great intensity, and perhaps my favorite, Cranston takes the mentor/father figure role that is normally a horrid cliche, and he turns it into a complex weasel of a character, charming, untrustworthy, supportive, sniveling.
As I left the movie theater, I heard many people saying they didn’t like it, that they “wanted more car chases,” that it was “too weird.” Funny, the time spent on character development and the film’s quirkiness were two of its best features, features that more films need. Don’t get me wrong, I like a brainless action movie as much as the next guy, but it takes a brainy action movie to make you realize just what most films are missing. The characters aren’t deep, but they’re complex. The action isn’t mind-blowing, but it gets you deeply invested. The effects may be missing, but I’ll take gorgeous cinematography over effects any day. Movies like this are missing from the studio system nowadays, and the fact that this got made the way that it did and turned out as awesome as it did is a minor miracle. Now it is in our hands– we can see this movie in theaters, financially support films that are made like this, and stay away from thoughtless dreck. We can tell Hollywood smart films are where the money lies, but we will only deliver that message through consistent support of intelligent genre filmmaking. I’d love Refn/Gosling to be the next Scorsese/DiCaprio, and I’d love to see genre movies that take creative risks while still fulfilling those pleasures that the genre provides. Drive is one of the best movie experiences I’ve had all year. Race out to go see it this weekend.
P.S. I saw it with a girl who was repulsed by the violence, which is definitely extreme in spots and made more agonizing because you’re invested. Warn those with delicate stomachs.