Who's gonna drive Judge Paul Pritchard home...tonight?
Our review of Drive, published February 13th, 2012, is also available.
"If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun…I drive."
Drive is the best movie of 2011. It's now out as Drive (Blu-ray) (Region B).
Facts of the Case
The life of Driver (Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine) revolves around cars. Working as a mechanic at a local garage, Driver also works part time as a stunt driver for big Hollywood productions. By night he is the number one getaway driver for the criminal element of the city.
Driver's head is turned, however, by his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan, Shame), and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), who offer him a glimpse of something more fulfilling. The three find that they complete each other, and begin spending more and more time together. However, any happiness the three find proves to be short-lived when Irene's husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison. Despite his attempts to go straight, Standard is soon forced back into his life of crime when his employers threaten the lives of Irene and Benicio. Unprepared to see harm come to either, Driver offers his assistance to Standard, but finds his own life in danger when the job goes terribly wrong.
All too rarely do we get a film like Drive, in which everything—from the acting and direction, to the writing and soundtrack—comes together so beautifully. Marrying the grind house with the art house, Drive is the best crime thriller since Pulp Fiction, and as visceral a work of cinema as this century has produced thus far.
The term "slow burner" could very well have been coined with Drive in mind. The first hour of the movie focuses on Driver's humanizing, as this quiet young man begins to open up, thanks to the warmth offered by Irene and her son. We know from the pre-credits sequence that Driver is a criminal, yet it is suggested that his exploits as a getaway driver stem solely from his incessant need to drive rather than any more violent leanings; as the title suggests, driving is what defines him. Therefore his subsequent courting of Irene, not to mention his relationship with Benicio, implies the film will focus on Driver's attempts to go straight. If this were to be the case, Drive would still be a remarkable film, as this relationship proves so captivating.
So it comes as a great shock when—come the hour mark—Drive instead goes full throttle in the other direction, and erupts into an orgy of violence—and when I say violence, I'm talking real, skull-crushing, R-rated, uber-violence.
Making the violence all the more powerful is the human element that adds weight and purpose to it. One of the most affecting scenes in the movie comes when Driver returns home to find Irene's husband, Standard, bloodied and beaten following an attack by his old associates, while his son Benicio tearfully looks on. Director Nicolas Winding Refn seems acutely aware of how to best capture and convey the tone of individual moments, as this scene proves. Having been emasculated in front of his son, Standard realizes he is powerless to protect his family from the violence threatened against them unless he returns to his old ways. What makes the scene unforgettable, though, is the site of Benicio, sitting alone, quietly reflecting on the beating his father has just taken—a beating he witnessed firsthand. In that moment it is clear that Benicio's childhood is over. Suddenly his dad is no longer invincible. In a way that is all too real, Benicio is confronted with the fact that the bad guys he sees in the movies are not just confined to the silver screen. There is something else there that is more troubling. Benicio seems to acknowledge—albeit silently—that he has lost his father, whether it be to violence, prison, or his old criminal ways. Benicio understands that Standard will never be the male role model he needs, and so in that respect looks toward Driver. Quietly acknowledging this, Driver knowingly takes on the role of protector that informs his subsequent actions.
Taking a different track to the likes of Fast 5, Drive refrains from the traditions of the Hollywood action movie by delivering action scenes with brains. The pre-credits chase sequence is fraught with tension, despite rarely breaking the speed limit. Instead, the entire sequence plays like a high stakes game of chess, as Driver cleverly outwits (and outmaneuvers) the ensuing police cars. This tension extends to the more physical acts of violence, such as an unforgettable altercation in an elevator that matches the opening shootout in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence for sheer impact and shock value.
Comparisons to George Stevens' western Shane, which focused on the futile attempts of a gunfighter to find peace, often seem to crop up when discussing Drive, yet such a comparison seems to miss one vital point: Ryan Gosling's Driver is not looking to escape his life of crime when the movie begins. Indeed, as the film progresses it becomes apparent that he accepts that this is his life, and that—now he's in—there is no way out. His relationship with Irene and Benicio, therefore, is not so much a means of escape for him, but an unexpected development that adds substance to his otherwise lonely existence. It's evident that Driver is taken aback by his own reaction to Irene and her son, and even more so when they seem to reciprocate. Without realizing it, Driver becomes the father figure Benicio had been longing for, and the bond the two form proves beneficial to both parties. It is this relationship, contrasted against the escalating violence, that makes Drive so compelling.
The aesthetics of Drive are fascinating. Visually the film adopts a look that recalls the 1980s, which is backed up by the synth-heavy soundtrack, while the tone of the film suggests a thriller from the 1970s. Combined, these elements add a timelessness to Drive which should ensure it remains as powerful in twenty years time as it feels twenty seconds after the initial viewing. The film's soundtrack, which is dominated by Cliff Martinez's score, complements the onscreen action perfectly, with notable contributions from Kavinsky ("Nightcall") and College ("A Real Hero") that demands heavy rotation on one's MP3 player of choice.
Albert Brooks, best known for his comedy work and contributions to The Simpsons, delivers a performance worthy of greater recognition. Charismatic, well-read, and not afraid to get his hands dirty, crime boss Bernie Rose is exceptionally well written, and in Brooks' hands, truly frightening. Rose is not a man to mince his words, and his forthright attitude makes him all the more menacing. In short, this is a man without remorse.
Even portraying a man of very few words, Ryan Gosling allows us to understand the fundamentals of Driver, whilst ensuring the character maintains an air of mystery. He is a man with a code, and has a clearly defined understanding of right and wrong. In this way he could be seen as a modern-day Samurai. However, there is a darkness to Driver that, though we never learn the origin of, is evident in his self-assuredness in the most violent of situations. Driver fears this violent streak may overwhelm him, as is made clear from the tone in his voice when he informs Irene, "I have to go somewhere now, and I don't think I can come back."
Carey Mulligan's Irene is in many ways a cipher through whom the viewer experiences the events of the film, and when she witnesses Driver cave a man's face in—in an attack that apparently comes out of the blue—her reaction is perfectly in tune with ours. The rest of the cast, which includes a snarling Ron Perlman (Hellboy), keeps the standard of acting high.
Winding Refn, previously best known for the Pusher trilogy and Bronson, positions himself as one of the most exciting directors working today. As was true with his Viking epic Valhalla Rising, with Drive Winding Refn shows a determination to find something new in genre cinema, and in the process brings an element of existentialism that adds further weight to his film. It's also commendable how Winding Refn refrains from treating the relationship between Irene and Driver as a traditional love story. A lesser director would have succumbed to a clumsy love scene or happy ending, but in Winding Refn's hands, their relationship is something completely pure, yet tragic.
The Region B Blu-ray release of Drive sports a razor sharp 2.35:1/1080p high definition widescreen transfer. Depending on the mood the scene is attempting to convey, Drive may appear dark and gritty, or drenched in warm sunlight. The Blu-ray transfer adapts to the requirements of each individual scene perfectly, and sports rich black levels which are complemented by a strong color palette and high levels of detail. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is flawless, with crisp dialogue and effects work.
In terms of special features, however, this Blu-ray release is a little disappointing. A 40-minute Q&A session with the director is an excellent feature, and offers added insight into the film. Beyond that, the disc frustrates with only a few TV spots, trailers, and galleries included.
Stylish, touching, and relentlessly thrilling, Drive is an exceptional film that proves genre cinema needn't be constrained by the tropes that define it.
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