February 06, 2012

Drive (2011)

In 2005, when the novel "Drive" by crime fiction writer James Sallis was published, it quickly caught the interest of producer Adam Siegel, who was fascinated by the nameless protagonist of the story. Unfortunately, the project struggled to enter production, and while it was nearly done in 2008, the project ultimately fell though. Two years later, "Drive" returned to life when actor Ryan Gosling signed on to the project and was allowed to choose the director for the film. His choice was Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, the mind behind the British biopic "Bronson" and the successful Danish crime trilogy "Pusher". Having already proved to have a talented hand to direct deep and complex action films that go beyond the norms of its genre constrains, in his American debut Refn once again twists the genre in a retro style movie that has more in common with the quiet existentialism of Jean-Pierre Melville's crime cinema than with the Hollywood school of action films. Not that it doesn't boast it's American influence as well.

In "Drive", Ryan Gosling is a mechanic with great driving skills who works part time as a Hollywood stunt driver and moonlights as a getaway driver. Prefering to work anonymously, this Driver never tells his name, not even to Shannon (Bryan Cranston), owner of the garage where he works and who sets up his other jobs. Shannon plans to enter the racing business and borrows $300,000 from a mobster, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), to buy a stock car race with the intention of having the Driver racing it. One day the Driver helps his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) when her car has trouble, and soon becomes good friends with her and her young son (Benicio). They live at the apartment next door while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. When Standard is released, the Driver discovers that a gangster named Cook (James Biberi) is after Standard, and that he'll hurt Irene and Benicio if Standard doesn't rob a pawn shop for him. The Driver decides to help Standard in the job as a getaway driver, but things will go horribly wrong.

Adapted to the screen by Iranian scriptwriter Hossein Amini (of "The Wings of the Dove" fame), "Drive" is a quiet, melancholic exploration of loneliness embodied in the characters of Irene and the Driver, whose solitary lives find a certain peace as they meet each other. In many ways, Amini's screenplay echoes Western classics, specially "Shane", with the Driver finding solace from the violence and savagery of his life in his encounter with Irene and Benicio. Like a gunslinger, or better said, like a wandering knight, the silent Driver is certainly an outlaw willing to work for the right price, but still always under his very own set of rules, a strict and chivalrous moral code of his own. The story as it is, it's far from original, but rather than focusing on the actual action scenes, Amini spends a considerable amount of time developing his characters and their relationships. And by focusing on the human side of the story, Amini manages to transform his characters from basic archetypes to multidimensional and complex beings.

However, what sets "Drive" apart is actually the work of director Nicolas Winding Refn, who brings Amini's screenplay to life in a tight, stylish way that success in both displaying his particular influences without simply copying. If Amini's screenplay echoes "Shane", Refn's visual conception owes a lot to Jean-Pierre Melville's crime films, specially "Le Samouraï", which influences the brilliant world of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel as well. Sigel captures the Los Angeles scenery with a vibrant style that strips it away from all the Hollywood glamour and leaves its only with its gritty harshness. "Drive" has a distinctive retro 80s style, from the title sequence to its electro-pop soundtrack by Cliff Martinez. In Refn's vision, music plays a heavy role to set the mood, and Martínez' music conjures perfectly the melancholy of the Driver's solitary life. But beyond mere aesthetics, Refn's classy narrative shines in the way he uses silence to express. In Refn's film, the looks between his characters say more than lengthy lines of dialog.

Another highlight of "Drive" are the quite effective performances done by the cast. As the Driver, Ryan Gosling is restrained and calm, and in his face expression nicely evokes the sensation of melancholy that drives his character. It is a character that says more with his actions than with his voice, and Gosling manages to rise up to the challenge. Carey Mulligan plays Irene, and she truly adds a lot of charm to the movie. Her role is a bit limited, done like a moder embodiment of the lady in distress that inspires the hero to act. However, Mulligan does shine on occasions, particularly when her eyes meet Gosling's. Nevertheless, as good as Gosling and Mulligan are, the real gems are in the supporting cast, beginning with Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the Driver's boss who has never really been lucky at anything and whose dreams of making it big have never come to fruition. Albert Brooks, acting against type, delivers a masterful performance as mobster Bernie Rose, showing the best acting in the film. The always reliable Ron Pearlman is equally effective in his minor, yet important role.

Quiet, melancholic, and highly atmospheric, "Drive" is a quite atypical action films that feels like a throwback to a different style of filmmaking. And this is not a surprise, given the countless references Refn's film does to the crime films he loves. However, "Drive" is more than a pastiche of homages, as Refn does more than just limiting himself to mere name dropping, he actually crafts a film with a distinctive personality out of the homage. Nevertheless, as remarkable an achievement as "Drive" is, a couple of things prevent the film from being the masterpiece it could had been. For once, the film makes an unusually cartoonish display of violence at one point that it's just so over the top that unfortunately breaks the mood that had been built up to that point. Don't get me wrong, the film is violent since the beginning, but it's at the important moment when the Driver reveals his nature, when Refn goes a bit too far with his outburst. It's not that graphic violence is bad per se, but it feels out of place given the tone the film has.

Stylish, refreshing and full of energy, Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" is a polished and slick update to the action film by bringing back a bit of the depth and gravitas the genre used to have in the past. In a way, "Drive" is a film of romanticism, which is common in crime films, though in the case of "Drive", it's not a Romanticism in the sense of a glamorization of crime, but in the idealization of the human nature (Director Nicolas Winding Refn has gone on record saying that "Drive" works as a folk tale). The characters in "Drive", from the ruthless mobsters to the silent driver, all seem to aspire to improve their conditions. In the case of the Driver, that would mean to find a purpose and be a real human being.



Alex Jowski said...

Drive was an amazing film. Great review!

J Luis Rivera said...

Thank you! Glad you like it!