Review: "Drive"

NOTE: I left a LOT out concerning Drive. To be honest, I probably could have gone on and on about this film for 3,000 words and turned this into a critical essay rather than an "average moviegoer" review which is what I strive for. It's very near to a masterpiece and that's a word I save for only the most special of occasions.

Coming into 2011, I have to admit that Ryan Gosling wasn’t anywhere near the top of my list of actors who could get me to the theater just by being involved with a given film. Oh, he’s an outstanding actor, to be sure, but most of his films (and his performances therein) are purposefully off-putting and difficult to connect with. He has essentially shunned mainstream films, choosing instead to take on the weirdest roles that come his way. Even in his most commercially successful film, The Notebook, he plays a character that is difficult to engage. As such, I’ve treated him much the same way I treat Paul Giamatti: I know his movies are good and his work within them is stellar but they’re not for me. Basically, I’ve admired his ability from afar up to this point. 2011, though, is a turning point for me and I would imagine many other average moviegoers. Crazy, Stupid, Love was a completely different turn for Gosling and one that showed he had a much wider range than you might think (or at least much wider than he’d allowed us to see). Ides of March will debut in a few days and it is a near lock to receive some award attention, at which Gosling may well be the center. But Drive will be the film that I remember, the one that takes the display of his talent to an entirely new level, and the one that puts him on the list of actors whose movies I will see no matter what.

 A man of few words, Driver (Gosling) makes his living fixing cars at Shannon’s (Bryan Cranston) auto-shop and working as a stuntman for big Hollywood productions. On his downtime, however, Driver is a freelance wheel man, a get-away driver with an excellent reputation. He is guarded and has limited human interaction. Just as he begins to develop a relationship with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), returns from prison and brings with him a problem: he owes some bad dudes a lot of money. Against his better judgment, Driver agrees to drive Standard and help him pull a heist that will erase his debt. When the deal goes south, Driver finds that he’s gotten himself mixed up in a much bigger mess than he could have ever dreamed and sets out to insure the safety of Irene and exact a little revenge in the process.

Drive is very close to a perfect film, a seamless blend of summer blockbuster action and art-house drama. Honestly I have no idea how this got a wide release but I’m sure glad it did. (To me, the success of Drive should signify to Hollywood that there is an audience for lower budget, independent films if they would just give us an opportunity to see them. But I digress.) It is beautifully shot, incredibly well written, and completely secure in its identity. It is a truly intelligent action film like I’ve never seen before. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has made a number of films that were well received critically but unseen by audiences. That should all change now. What Refn has done behind the camera here is impeccable; every element, from casting to the choice of the hypnotic synthesizer beats of the background music, fits the story and more importantly, the main character. It is almost impossible to properly describe how well Drive flows and how everything that happens fits together. From one line to the next, one scene after another, everything works in perfect harmony to create a film that is truly outstanding. The narrative is slow and the film really only features a handful of traditional action sequences and yet it is thrilling and tense even when nothing much seems to be happening. The best action films are able to keep you enthralled when there are no explosions or gun fights taking place on screen. Drive does this so well that I was almost disappointed when the proverbial crap hit the fan and the film moved from a character piece into the action realm; it was that good on the narrative side of the equation. But then again, the quiet and balanced pace of the film outside of the action sequences make Driver’s hyper-violent confrontation more shocking and hard-hitting than they might have been otherwise.

My only complaint about Drive is the excessive “blood and guts” that come along with each “fight” scene. It isn’t that I’m offended by the violence or the gore (as it were); on the contrary, not only did I expect some violent confrontations, what happens to those around Driver dictates such actions. The problem is that the shocking, bloody nature of these scenes actually detracts from the overall realism of Drive. This is an incredibly realistic, gritty film but the horror movie-like blood that comes along with Driver’s physical destruction of an opponent is over-the-top and doesn’t gel properly. Refn’s style is excessively bloody (see: “Valhalla Rising”) but in this case, a muted approach would have served his film better.

The real power of Drive, though, is in its protagonist and Gosling’s portrayal. All of the remarkable work behind the camera would be for naught if the headlining star wasn’t able to carry the load. Driver is an exceptionally complex character masquerading as a simple man. He is extremely well-defined, a no nonsense kind of guy who wears an '80s style satin white jacket all the time and yet somehow makes that cool. He speaks in short sentences and says even less with his facial expressions and mannerisms. But his body language says it all; from cautious hope with Irene to clear disgust for those he works with right down to the rage he feels over being betrayed. What Gosling is able to do without speaking is immensely impressive. When he wants to be, Driver goes beyond intimidating and borders on becoming downright menacing. You do not want to mess with this cat and everyone else around him seems to know it (they just realize this too late). Yet even when he’s on the rampage he is calm and collected, as if his quiet nature feeds his violent side and vice versa. There is a scene in which Driver puts on his driver gloves and delivers a smack to a traitor who is withholding something. It is in this moment that Drive switches gears and instantly transitions from a romantic drama to violent action film and in this moment, I was genuinely afraid not just of Driver but of Gosling himself. If you’d have told me 12 years ago that the scrawny kid from Remember the Titans would be able to send a ripple of fear through my body, I would have laughed in your face (and then punched you, as I’m prone to doing). This is just a microcosm of the brilliant performance Gosling delivers and a sign of all the things to come in his career. This would be a good film if Paul Walker was the lead (I already regret typing that) but Gosling makes it GREAT.

Grade: A+

I retract what I just said about Paul Walker,