Hello again, and welcome to the first regular post here post-Sundance. Since I am no longer in Park City, Adventures in Celluloid will be undergoing a bit of a shift – from travelogue and film criticism to straight film criticism with occasional adventures elsewhere. To start things off, I will be writing about one of my favorite movies of 2011. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was advertised as an action-packed blockbuster in the spirit of the indefatigable Fast and Furious franchise. That was a poor choice on the distributor’s part – Drive and the Fast franchise do both feature characters who are expert drivers and put those skills to use while committing crimes, but beyond that they have very little in common. Where the Fast franchise has had success because of its over-the-top action, Drive treats its action and violence as far more matter-of-fact. Instead, it succeeds as a film because of strong character work, a carefully maintained balance between peace and violence and a fascination with motion that fills and (I apologize) drives the entire film forward.
Ryan Gosling plays “The Driver.” His actual name is never given, but it does not particularly matter. Driving just about defines everything he does. In a car, he is unmatched – during the opening heist scene his knowledge of Los Angeles and the way other drivers behave allows him to become the first anti-hero I have ever seen escape the police by driving the speed limit. Out of a car though, he is awkward, gangly, deeply shy and almost static in the way he moves. He stands tall, but largely because he seems deeply uncomfortable out of the driver’s seat. His apartment is sparse, dominated mainly by a table he uses to work on assorted car parts when he is not doing the same at Shannon (Bryan Cranston’s) garage, one of the few places he seems comfortable outside of a car. Shannon helps him find work both legal (stunt driving) and illegal (getaway driving) and is very much a father figure to the Driver, despite continually stiffing him on pay. The Driver almost certainly knows about this, but does not particularly seem to care.
Instead, he turns his attention to Irene (Carey Mulligan) and Benicio (Kaden Leos,) a young mother and her son. He becomes a friend and protector to Benicio and begins an awkward, oddly sweet romance with Irene. The latter comes to a halt after Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isacc) returns from prison. From there, Drive zooms in even closer on the Driver as a character. When things go wrong for Standard, Irene and Benicio, he vows to protect them. In the process he exposes a vicious, violent streak that is well and truly terrifying to watch. I do not want to write too much on this, because beyond that point discussing the film gets difficult without spoilers, but the scene this review’s picture comes from contains one of the most whiplash-inducing changes in tone I have yet seen in any film.
While Drive‘s violence is nowhere near as pronounced or extended as The Raid‘s, both are exercises in balance. The violence perpetuated on and by the Driver and others is heavily grounded in their character development – the Driver is relentless, the hitmen employed by Ron Pearlman’s thuggish mobster Nino are just as needlessly brutal as he is, and Nino’s boss Bernie (Albert Brooks) is exceedingly dangerous, but seems tired of being so – when he kills someone, he apologizes for the fact that the film’s events have kept them from going into business together, and kills as quickly and painlessly as he can. The way Refn’s cast react and perform violence speaks volumes about their character, and while it does not hold back, it never feels gratuitous or unnecessary to the story. Getting that balance right takes a rare skill, and Refn definitely has it (I have not seen any of his other work as of this writing, but I will definitely be covering it at some pont.)
Drive is definitely Ryan Gosling’s film as an actor – the Driver, with his shyness around Irene, noticeable awkwardness outside of a car, ability to inflict incredible amounts of violence and memorable wardrobe is an iconic figure, one to be remembered in the years to come. But the rest of the cast are also excellent, particularly Mulligan and Brooks, who share opposite relationships with the Driver and inspire some of the picture’s most memorable scenes.
Even as hyped up as it has been, Drive deserves to be seen. It is an extremely well-acted, legitimately memorable film that actually succeeds in creating a new icon of cinema in the Driver. That does not happen terribly often, so when it does, it is definitely worth checking out.