*** If you know me, you know that Drive is one of my favorite films of all-time. And if you really know me, you’re aware that it took me until December to finally sit down and see it for the first time, a fact that I’m not necessarily proud of. So I figured what better way to help kick off the new blog than by pulling up Netflix and watching Gosling get behind the wheel for like the fifth time in two months?
I love the simply-titled Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 moody action/thriller that warranted a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival in which it premiered.
In a year that saw Ryan Gosling become a bona fide star, Drive was his best outing by a mile. The film opens with one of the most impressive chase scenes in recent movie history – in which our nameless hero evades police in a heart pounding getaway attempt, all the while listening intently to the exciting conclusion to the Clippers game on his radio. As strange as it is, the lack of dialogue and the intertwining police/sports radios works perfectly, and it sets the tone for how the rest of the movie will unfold.
The Driver has no background, no family, and no name. He’s a motion picture stuntman and mechanic by day, and an elite getaway driver by night. He falls in love with his beautiful, innocent neighbor, who’s husband is in jail and who’s son is in need of a father figure. On paper, this sounds like a train wreck of a movie.
In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Refn saturates his stylistic film in sharp color contrast and extraordinary cinematography, highlighted by a pulsing, synth-laden soundtrack that steeps Drive in an atmospheric, 80′s attitude. The scene alone when the Driver takes love interest Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio for a sun-soaked afternoon drive as College & Electronic Youth’s “A Real Hero” floods the background had me hooked. (A quick aside: I recently found out that Drive’s neon-bright aesthetics and deep color-contrast are due to the fact that Nicolas Winding Refn is, to an extent, colorblind. The reason the visuals are so dramatic is because Refn wants to be able to see his own work. It’s little touches like this that make me appreciate the effort put into the project that much more.)
The narrative is surprisingly fresh, even though Refn lets the camera do most of the talking. Good turns from Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks as the ruthless criminals showcase the cast’s talent, and Bryan Cranston’s likeable Shannon helps keep Drive’s wheels turning, even in the face of the slow, calculated approach that Refn takes to set the story up, which he adapted from the James Sallis novel of the same name. It is ultimately Gosling who sells it, however, with his earnest looks and collected, unphased exterior. He was the coolest man on the silver screen all year, and he lets you know it every time he cracks that half smile with the toothpick protruding. He probably doesn’t say much more than 200 words for the entire hour and forty minutes of run time, which makes his performance all the more powerful, a la the John Wayne, “man of few words” type of action hero. Whether it is his tender interactions with Irene and Benicio, his commanding presence in the midst of a job, or his go-for-broke desperation as he tries to right all wrongs in the last act of the movie, when the Driver speaks he demands our attention. And when he doesn’t speak, it’s the way he carries himself that does the talking for him. This is reflected in the scorpion on the back of his jacket, which is perhaps the greatest bit of mise-en-scene throughout the film; like the Driver, it is calm and shy until its life or environment is threatened.
In the end, it is the fact that he takes action and stands up for a chance at truly connecting with someone that resonates so deeply inside of me. “A Real Hero” is played for a second time at the end of the movie – when the Driver takes his stand – and it reflects his transformation as a character. The entire movie, Cliff Martinez’s score is comprised of touching works of ambient music, which parallels the Driver’s dark, mysterious background that balances with the hopeful nature of his budding relationships. It culminates in College & Electronic Youth’s anthem, as he has finally become what the lyrics indicate: a real hero to Irene and Benicio, and a real human being to himself and the world at large. The finale is heartbreaking and inspired, and I daresay one of the best conclusions to a film I’ve seen in a long time.
Drive very well might be my favorite movie of 2011. It’s criminally under-seen and even more so under-appreciated, as it came away with no major awards of any kind. Realistic and gritty, heartfelt and touching, Refn’s cinematic darling was one of the biggest surprises of the decade and it merits at least a few viewings. And luckily for you, it’s available on Netflix instant-watch. As we trudge through the post-awards season rut that is late winter, pop in the DVD and buckle up, because Drive is one heck of a thrill ride.