“Drive” has been marketed as a gritty action flick, and more specifically a car chase film, and because of that it is bound to disappoint people expecting dumb fun akin to a “Fast and the Furious” movie. The trailers misleadingly emphasize the action elements of what is essentially an art house crime thriller that slowly builds toward shocking violence.
Ryan Gosling stars as the nameless Driver, a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a heist wheelman. Throughout, he remains a mysterious loner who doesn’t say much. We’re given just enough to suspect that he could be mentally unstable and capable of violence. After he moves into a new apartment, he begins to form an unhealthy relationship with a neighbor down the hall, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). He latches onto them to give his life meaning and makes their problems his own. Both the plot and main character feel heavily inspired by “Taxi Driver,” with the exception that Driver has skills that propel him toward his fate, instead of mere loneliness and creeping madness.
Much of the first half of the film focuses on a budding-but-doomed romance between Driver and Irene, and it is this section in particular that will turn off hardcore action fans. Even fans of love stories might start checking their watches. Their romance isn’t developed with cute humor or dialogue, but desperate sideways glances and gestures of kindness, and it doesn’t safely and predictably build toward the guy getting the girl. Instead, when Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is freed from prison, Driver decides to protect the family by helping him do one more job to get him out of the game.
It is at this point that things begin to fall apart in thrilling fashion. There is a car chase or two (three in total in the film, one at the opening), and people start to drop like flies. If you’re not on the edge of your seat in the second half of “Drive,” you either don’t have a pulse or fell asleep in the first half, in which case you don’t deserve the stylish, character driven thrills the film offers. The audience I saw it with was surely prepared for the chases, but they seemed caught off guard by the sudden, shocking, gory violence, which uses practical effects and along with the film as a whole acts as homage to the 80s. Fans of 80s horror will be pleased to know that “Drive” features the best (only?) exploding head of the year. The gore came as a surprise to me, too, but I gratefully embraced it.
When the gory action begins, for me it wasn’t payoff for sitting through a boring, deliberately paced romance. It was an immensely satisfying part of a great whole. There are long sequences devoted to Driver and Irene merely looking at each, Driver smiling at Benicio, and Driver taking them for a ride, and I was engrossed throughout. Even when little was happening, my eyes were glued to the screen thanks to the artistry and craftsmanship on display.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn breathes confident style into a sparse script, and he is aided by a stellar cast. Not only does Gosling nail his role as a dangerous, mysterious loner, but he is supported by an incredible roster of players. Bryan Cranston plays his boss and manager, and he doesn’t get to show off all of his chops like he does on “Breaking Bad,” but he creates a pathetic character who always seems to get himself in trouble, despite his good heart. Christina Hendricks from “Mad Men” has a brief but memorable role. Ron Perlman and, in particular, Albert Brooks stand out as vicious small-time organized crime bosses. Brooks shows off a dark side I never knew he had, and I felt uncomfortable every time he was on screen.
The soundtrack deserves special mention, because it contributes greatly to the film and its 80s vibe. Like the film, the songs aren’t from the 80s, but they feel inspired by the decade, and they’re incredibly fun and catchy. Give “A Real Hero” by College featuring Electric Youth or “Nightcall” by Kavinsky, which plays over the opening credits, a listen and see if they don’t stick in your head and evoke a specific mood. It’s the second time this fall, after “Contagion,” that I’ve fallen in love with a score or soundtrack due to its provocation of 80s nostalgia.
“Drive’ is a film destined to split audiences, a feat I’m convinced means it’s required viewing. Fans of film as an art form instead of mere entertainment will probably get more mileage out of it. There is so much to admire, even if you don’t love it as much as I did. Reactions wildly varied at my screening. Someone loudly booed at the screen as the credits rolled. I heard another viewer complain to a theater employee that it was too slow and not as advertised. On the way to the parking lot, I heard a middle aged man tell his wife that he loved the film, and it kept him on the edge of his seat throughout. I’m in his camp. It’s one of my favorite films of the year, and even if it doesn’t eventually make your top ten list, you have to see it.
5 out of 5 stars
“Drive” will be reviewed on the next episode of Movie Dudes.