Sunday, September 18, 2011

Drive

Grade: 97 (A)

Drive is Nicolas Winding Refn’s love letter to film. Many of Refn’s influences show through- Walter Hill, William Friedkin, Michael Mann. Alejandro Jodorowsky even gets a dedication. And the film unmistakably plays like a thriller of the early-80s kind, with a gorgeous Cliff Martinez score (possibly his best) that echoes the Tangerine Dream scores of Thief, Risky Business or Near Dark. But the film is unmistakably Refn’s. It disposes of any dialogue or shot superfluous to the story. It mixes gorgeous images with bone-crunching violence. It oozes love for the genre it exemplifies while raising it to mythic proportions. And as in any of his films, the characters are not defined by what they say or feel, but by what they do, and that’s what drives the film forward. Drive feels like the film Refn has been building toward for years. It is cinema boiled down to its purest form.

The nameless driver at the center of the film (Ryan Gosling) has little life outside of what he does. He drives. Sometimes as a stunt driver for the movies, sometimes as a getaway driver for criminals at night. He works as a mechanic in a local shop run by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who wants him to drive his stock car. Shannon has some dangerous friends sponsoring the car, gangsters Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks). But there’s nothing to worry about at the moment. The change comes with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a new neighbor to the driver. The two connect, the driver bonds with her son Benicio, and through this shy, simple relationship, the driver begins to feel that he is more than simply what he does. When Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaacs) makes bail, the he suspects something between Irene and the driver, but when a couple of hoods threaten Standard and Benicio, the driver is ready to help with a job Standard needs to pay the hoods back. And then the gentle, romanticized film takes an ugly turn as the driver is pushed to defend the people he loves however he can.

The performances in the film are universally spectacular, from Cranston as Gosling’s all around good guy boss to Perlman as a fuck-up gangster. Three stand out: Brooks, Mulligan, and Gosling. Brooks is usually called-upon to play neurotic co-workers, neurotic fathers, neurotic criminals, or all around neurotics. Here, Bernie is a vicious, menacing man. He seems irritated whenever he has to become violent, but he’s hardly reluctant to do it. Brooks manages to remain very much in the Albert Brooks persona, but without the character’s usual self-consciousness. Mulligan and Gosling manage to create a more memorable and pure relationship than most films can dream of; words are not needed, actions speak volumes. The two look at each other with great tenderness and affection as if they were shouting to the rooftops. Two of the finest actors working today, they allow the director’s framing to do the heavy lifting while the soundtrack works as a commentary on their love (the song “Real Hero” by College so perfectly encapsulates the relationship and how it affects the driver that it’s a shock to find it was not written for the film).

Gosling is the film. Refn’s leads represent the very heart of his films (Tom Hardy as anarchy incarnate in Bronson, Mads Mikkelson as the violence in man in Valhalla Rising), and with Gosling as the driver he finds a perfect muse. The driver works as an extension of what he does, as a James Dean-like American myth, but whose good looks and calm demeanor hide a potential for horrifying brutality. It’s difficult not to give all of the credit to Gosling: Drive has a more consistent story and script than Bronson or Valhalla Rising, and Refn has become a more confident filmmaker. But the two seem destined to make films together for quite some time, as Gosling seems perfectly attuned at all times to what the film needs (indeed, he and Refn worked together to trim the script). Gosling is a first-rate actor, as Half Nelson, Blue Valentine and Crazy, Stupid, Love. have proven. But his minimalist performance here is the best vehicle for his talents yet, and why not? With Drive, Gosling and Refn prove once and for all that character is action.

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