Monday, February 20, 2012


It is easy for the casual film fan to dismiss Drive without seeing it.  A character, identified only as The Driver in the credits, moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals.  The star is Ryan Gosling, a heartthrob just starting to come into his own with three extremely successful movies in 2011, as well as the subject of one of the internet's more peculiar obsessions.  Hot actor + getaway driving = An ode to Burt Reynolds, right?  At the very least, Drive sounds like it should be a Fast and the Furious-type movie.  Heads up, people: if you walk into Drive with those sort of expectations, you will be thoroughly confused and maybe even upset.
An actual reaction to Drive
Here's the expectations you should have with Drive: it stars an actor that has (so far) avoided dumb action or pretty boy roles, directed by a man known for making weird movies with fantastic lead actor performances.  Fair enough?

Drive opens with The Driver (Gosling) ready to take part in a heist.  He doesn't help with the crime, he doesn't carry a gun, he doesn't talk to the people he's driving --- he drives.  And he's the best at what he does.  When he's not acting as a wheelman, The Driver is still driving.  He's a part-time movie stuntman that works in a garage and cruises Los Angeles to relax.  He doesn't say much, though.  He just stares and waits for awkward pauses to fill most of his conversations whenever he can.  Thanks to a little luck, The Driver winds up befriending his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Benicio. 
Hey girl.  Miming masturbation with a water bottle in a hallway?  Classy.
Their friendship is quiet and a little awkward, but ultimately chaste.  A week later, Irene's jailbird husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison and comes home.  Now, you might assume that the aggressive Standard is going to become the antagonist at this point, because he is clearly suspicious of The Driver.  But no.  The newly freed Standard apparently owes a lot of money to some violent people for protecting him in prison; his wife and son will pay the price if he doesn't commit a particular robbery soon.  The Driver can't have that, so he offers to do what he does best: drive.  Not because it's a job, not because he wants to, but because he needs to protect Irene and Benicio, and it soon becomes apparent just how far he is willing to go for a few moments of kindness.

There are many things that make Drive stand out from most films, but what caught my attention first was the intentionally minimalist portrayal of The Driver.  He barely speaks, and when he does, his responses are typically odd.  He is fairly free of personality and emotions.  And yet, The Driver is so impossibly calm that you start to anticipate the moment where he just explodes. 
And that definitely happens
Ryan Gosling turns in a strong, silent-type performance that is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name.  The only difference is that Eastwood's Man was obviously dangerous at all times (and that makes him cool) and Gosling's Driver is cool with danger bubbling underneath.  I was very impressed with Gosling.  It's always nice to see acting with subtle layers and to play such an impassive role (at times, his face was almost a Michael Myers mask of blankness) and then flip a switch to being so passionate --- and do that convincingly --- was a pleasure to watch.
...and stare at, and with.
Carey Mulligan was very sweet as Irene, and I thought she did a pretty good job.  It was a timid role, and those can come across as wimpy or clingy, but I liked how well she balanced Gosling's character.  Oscar Isaac is good at playing heels, and he's as unlikable as ever here.  Christina Hendricks looked naturally busty and a little trashy; I wasn't too impressed by her acting, but she is a key part in one of the most jaw-dropping moments in the film.  Bryan Cranston shows up to play a small part; I like Cranston and understand how hard it must be to find good film roles that fit him, but I think he's better than the half-dozen supporting roles he churned out this year.  I was happy to see Ron Perlman playing a character that was not placed in the Middle Ages.  Perlman's not a fantastic actor, but his ugly mug and gruff voice make any character plausibly tough.  My favorite performance in Drive, though, definitely belonged to Albert Brooks.  I normally hate Brooks, but he was absolutely fantastic here.  I would have liked his work from the first half of the movie alone, but his soothing, reasonable voice contrasted so beautifully with his actions in the second half that I was simply blown away.  You wouldn't think it, but his character wound up being more frightening than Perlman's.
...but not as frightening as Driver's mask

That Drive has so little dialogue should come as no surprise to fans of director Nicolas Winding Refn.  His last film, Valhalla Rising, featured a lead actor with zero lines and no attempts to communicate.  The stunning use of the soundtrack (so 80s) also fits in with his established modus operandi.  In fact, most of what you notice of the direction in Drive has shown up, from time to time, in Refn's admittedly difficult filmography.  What makes his work here so impressive is that Refn managed to make a compelling story with confusing but plausible emotions without ditching his distinctive style. 
The camera work was good, the way the shots were framed was gorgeous, the lighting was effective, and his direction of Gosling was great.  Refn's best work on Drive, though, was in how effectively he builds tension.  The car chases in this movie are not just excuses to show crashes or goofy stunts; they are intelligently played chess matches, with all the deliberation that implies.  The scenes where The Driver is waiting --- for someone to get into his car, for a helicopter to pass, whatever --- were the most taut moments I saw on film this year.  The silence on screen was so intense that The Driver's gloves were audibly distracting, and when gunshots shatter the silence, well...that was awesome.

Still, you can definitely make some good arguments that Drive was over-hyped by critics this year.  The pacing is unusual and awkward.  The main character is barely relatable as a human for most of the movie.  He wears an awesome, but ridiculously recognizable jacket at all times; the jacket is never ditched, even after its is covered in blood, and the scorpion stitching is never explained.
Like Driver is going to explain anything to you
In fact, a lot of things are left out of Drive.  When Irene gets the news that Standard is being released from prison, Refn cuts away so the audience doesn't hear the news.  Obviously, we find out moments later, but little choices like that can add up to annoy an audience.  The violence is abrupt and excessive; aside from some truly gruesome moments, Drive also contains the best head-splattering gunshot I have seen outside of a Tom Savini movie.  And yet, some of the deaths were surprisingly played down.  Film critic types can also point out similarities to other filmmakers, with the most apt comparison being to Jean-Pierre Melville.

I get all of those complaints.  I really do.  But they don't matter.  Drive doesn't ape anyone's style, it is the logical result of many years of Nicolas Winding Refn's film evolution, and it is easily his most entertaining and accessible film.  I loved the pacing and the awkwardness and the ridiculousness of The Driver; his character is, in many ways, absolutely unbelievable, but I loved his style.  Drive sets the audience up to expect one type of movie, but quickly switches gears (see what I did there?) to provide almost the antithesis of the typical car chase film --- and then the shit hits the fan and The Driver starts hitting people, again upsetting expectations.  This is definitely the best movie-as-art film I have seen from the past few years, and it just happens to be one of the coolest, too.  The only thing keeping it from a ten in my book is the fact that I've only seen it once so far.


  1. The Driver is a fan of the fable "The Scorpion and The Frog" he actually asks someone if they have heard of the movie. Again, doesn't make up for the awkward and flashy jacket... but it is referenced.

  2. I feel a little bit guilty saying that Drive needed more driving. When the action comes it is tense and artfully done without shying away from the extreme violence, but that all starts to go away as soon as the characters start talking, or sighing and looking at each other. Nice review.

  3. This flick was a breath of fresh air. Unlike you, I went into it completely blind the second day it came out and was ever so rewarded. It is odd how many flaws this movie has (as you point out), yet still completely rocks. I have seen it a half dozen times, the number of flaws have grown, but it is still my favorite movie of this century. The knock that I have not understood is when people point to the similarity of Refn's style to that of Melville. Melville was one of the best directors ever. People should be watching his shit and being influenced by his style. Especially because it offers such a wonderful contrast to the short-attention-span, fifty-shot-a-minute shit that Hollywood keeps producing.

  4. @Tricia: I caught that, too. Still...if that's the reason for the jacket embroidery, this movie just got a little bit more ridiculous.

    @Dan: I actually really enjoyed how incredibly awkward all that staring and not talking was. As for it needing more driving, I can see that much could they improve on the realistic driving scenes without getting silly?

    @NB: Yes, I went into it with a bit of knowledge, thanks to your text massage barrage. I think the Melville gripe is not so much against Refn as it is against the average American's knowledge of Melville. Where Super 8 was recognized as an homage to 70s Spielberg because A) it was obvious and B) Spielberg movies are part of popular culture, I think some folks just want to point out that Refn's style is not entirely his own. The direction in Drive was definitely a welcome change from the average Hollywood flick, at the very least.