Sony // 2011 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // February 13th, 2012
"What do you?"
It's easy to see why director Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive confused mainstream audiences. Released in the U.S. just after summer blockbuster season, many theatergoers went in expecting an action flick like Fast Five. Instead, they were treated to an indie crime drama with few car chases, long stretches of silence, and a protagonist so enigmatic he doesn't even have a name.
Those who were upset by the film might say it was falsely advertised -- one woman even filed a lawsuit -- but I liken their reaction to the phenomenon that makes a starving person gag when they are finally able to eat real food. Drive isn't what a lot of people expected. It's not an action blockbuster. It's not a crime thriller. It's not a conventional Hollywood movie. It's something better.
Based on the James Sallis novel of the same name, Drive is about a movie stunt driver (Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March) who works for a mechanic (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad) by day and hires himself out as getaway driver by night. Not long after Driver befriends a pretty neighbor named Irene (Carey Mulligan, Shame) and her young son (Kaden Leos), her husband (Oscar Isaac, Sucker Punch) is released from prison, bringing with him a debt owed to dangerous men who threaten his family. To save them, Driver offers to help pull off one last robbery. What is supposed to be an easy job takes a deadly turn, however, pitting Driver against local gangsters to protect Irene and her son.
Drive can be confusing even if you aren't expecting an action blockbuster. It feels familiar, with heists, romance, and violence, but Refn defies expectations at every turn. Even when it resembles the real world, there is an undercurrent of unreality, like blinking awake from a vivid dream. Part of it is Refn's distinctive style. Drive is slick, evoking the Ô80s with synth music and a hot pink cursive title font, but it has very little in common with action movies of that decade. It moves at a much slower pace than most thrillers, especially the first half of the film. There are long pauses in the dialogue and quiet scenes that counterbalance explosive violence. Refn films his action with purpose, using slow motion instead of jittery edits to capture the rhythm of practiced bloodshed.
This is a world divided into predators and prey, with a protagonist who rides the line between the two. Those predators include gangsters, played by heavyweights Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy) and Albert Brooks (Real Life). Both men elevate the material, but Brooks has gotten extra, well-deserved, praise for playing against type. The innocents in this film, meanwhile, aren't always innocent. While Irene and Benicio have done nothing wrong and don't deserve to be in danger, it's harder to sympathize with Driver's mechanic pal, Shannon (played by Bryan Cranston), Irene's husband, and Christina Hendricks' mob moll Blanche. These would-be criminals know what they are getting into; they just don't realize how low they are on the food chain until it's too late.
Like Timothy Olyphant in Justified, or Clint Eastwood in the Man With No Name trilogy, it's impossible to imagine Drive without Ryan Gosling. His quiet, arresting performance is conveyed mostly through body language. He stays silent when another movie's hero would run his mouth. He listens. He watches. He waits. He asks a single question, and then meets the answer with a nod or a slight smile. When he talks, it's with an accent -- reminiscent, like the character itself, of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver -- that says he will always be an outsider.
Gosling's character, known only as "Driver," is a modern day cowboy. He rides, not on a horse, but in a souped up Chevelle. His scorpion jacket and driving gloves replace the standard hat and spurs, but Refn doesn't tell us enough about the character to classify him as "good" or "bad." He consorts with criminals and can hold his own in a fight, but to him it's all about driving. He's in complete control behind the wheel. His car is an extension of his body, a tough outer shell. The only time we see Driver completely at ease away from a car is with Irene and her son. We aren't given enough information to know for sure whether Driver sees a future with them but as soon as he knows they're in danger, he sacrifices everything to protect them.
Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini leave the film open-ended, giving us a glimpse into characters' lives without providing much back story or closure. Driver is a mysterious figure who seems tied by fate to his symbol: the scorpion. In Aesop's fable "The Scorpion and the Frog," a scorpion convinces a frog to take him across a river on his back. Partway across, he stings the frog, dooming them both to drown. In Driver's case, he's both the dangerous scorpion and the frog, literally wearing the scorpion on his back. In a cycle of violence that is hinted at, but never explained, he seems destined for tragedy. His only hope is to face the danger alone without dragging down the people he cares about.
Drive is a stunner on DVD. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel matches Refn's immaculate direction, painting L.A. in bold strokes of light and shadow. The 2.40:1 standard-def presentation doesn't allow for as much detail in the deep shadows as on Blu-ray, but it's an impressive presentation nonetheless. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track is a powerful mix, delivering quiet dialogue, Cliff Martinez's haunting electronic score, and booming sound effects with punch and clarity.
The bonus features are an odd mix of featurettes and a Refn interview that combine for an in-depth exploration of the ideas, characters, and challenges of making the film:
* "I Drive" (5:25): This first featurette focuses on the Driver character, the mythology of the movie, and the director's vision.
* "Under the Hood" (11:49): A collection of actor profiles that delve deeper than the standard production fluff. It includes the story of how Carey Mulligan fought to be in the film, inspiring Refn to rewrite the character.
* "Driver and Irene" (6:12): A discussion of the stages and themes behind the story's central relationship.
* "Cut to the Chase" (4:35): A look at the unconventional chase sequences and stunt driving used in the film.
* "Drive Without a Driver: Entretien Avec Nicolas Winding Refn" (25:40): This interview is the highlight of the extras. In it, the director gives an honest assessment of the film's inception, production, and reception. Highlights include a story about how the film's inspiration (a potent mix of Ryan Gosling, flu medicine, and REO Speedwagon) and the evolution of the shocking elevator scene.
It would be easy to dismiss Drive as shallow, but that would be a mistake. There's more under the hood than appears on its stylish surface. Nicolas Winding Refn directs with precision and purpose, crafting the newest genre masterpiece. It is filled with great actors, but Drive belongs to Ryan Gosling. His nameless Driver is iconic, a welcome change from the usual catchphrase-spouting action hero. If you haven't yet seen Refn's latest, go in with no expectations and enjoy the ride.
Hammer time. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site