Drive (2011)

In 2008, director Nicolas Winding Refn turned stylized violence into art with the beautiful biopic Bronson. Three years later, he attempts to do it again with Drive, a pulpy artsy action movie starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver. The unnamed protagonist also moonlights as a professional getaway driver, a profession which lends this film one of the greatest opening scenes in recent years. As the opening credits began, I was all aboard Drive as an intelligent and stylistic action film. By the time the film ended, my expectations had been upset, but I could still walk away from the theater able to say that I saw a great movie.

From the exhilarating opening scene onward, it’s obvious that this movie is enamored of a sort of neo-noir style. Gosling leads us through the night life of downtown Los Angeles, a seedy world lit by neon letters and scored by electropopish pulses. It’s in this world that Gosling does his best work, evading the police through a mixture of cunning and driving prowess. In that opening scene, as he uses a police radio to track the progress of his own pursuit, he keeps the baseball game on the entire time, lending an air of normalcy to the tense situation. Here is a man who’s not trying to prove anything, he’s just a person who happens to be pretty stoic and a really great driver.

I was ready to love an intelligent noir film with a lot of driving scenes, but that wasn’t what Refn had in mind. After hooking us pre-credits, Refn reels us in with a character study of our unnamed hero. Gosling plays the role in the spirit of Clint Eastwood. He’s cool, quiet, and measured. A cipher with very few lines, he seems less a man than an unalterable pillar of karmic justice. The only times he expresses emotion (and then, only a recurrent feeble smile) is when he’s spending time with his neighbor played by Carey Mulligan and her son. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and her husband played by Oscar Isaac comes home from prison, unfortunately with some violent baggage attached.

The case of Isaac’s character, Standard, is a great example of how Drive is an outstanding film. It would be easy for Standard to be a bad guy, an obvious mistake for Mulligan that Gosling should clearly replace. But he’s not. He’s a guy who’s made mistakes, seems to seriously regret them, and is even (mostly) civil when he talks to the man who’s gotten close to his wife while he’s been gone. In fact, as the stone-faced hero, Gosling plays the least-developed character. The people around him are very real, complex characters, all handled adroitly by their actors. Shining especially bright is Albert Brooks as a rational but extremely violent businessman who ends up as the primary antagonist for Gosling and friends.

After such a solid start, I was strapped in for an action film. When it took a turn and developed its romantic thread instead, I was surprised but still on board. A third jarring tonal shift marks the third act, after a heist gone wrong leaves Standard and a seriously wasted (and unfortunately made-up) Christina Hendricks dead. It’s here that the film charges enthusiastically into the ultraviolence, with Gosling going on an Oldboy-style rampage – complete with a hammer for great justice. Between Gosling and Brooks, the violence becomes so extreme, so excessive, that the movie threatens to become campy.

The movie is well-crafted and knows it. The great cinematography is shown off with constant slow-motion that makes every shot linger for us to better appreciate. It’s secure enough in its quality to get extreme with its violence, never too shy to show it onscreen. It’s even smug enough to throw in a healthy amount of gratuitous nudity. But lest you try to charge that it’s all style and no substance, it never lets up in quality – a very suspenseful scene between Brooks and Bryan Cranston near the end is one of the film’s best, and a fine showcase for two of its many talented players.

I’ll be honest when I say I wanted Drive to be something else, wanted it to be a straightforward action movie that was sleeker and more intelligent than the rest. Instead, it seems to explore itself as it progresses, trying out different tones and eventually settling on sensationalized violence. There’s no doubt that it’s a good film throughout all of these developments. Still, I can’t help feel like a parent who’s proud of what his kid has grown up to be, but wishes he had used his potential to do something different.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

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