A dark and hypnotic neo-noir that calls back neon-drenched crime films of the 1980s.
There’s a scene in Drive where our nameless driver hero (played by Ryan Gosling) shares an elevator with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and an unknown man carrying a gun in his blazer. During the ride down, the driver advances to the woman and embraces her with a kiss. Their moment shines with a change in lighting, noticeable yet restrained. Once the kiss is over the lighting changes again to what it was before. What happens next is quick and severe. The scene as a whole is one of several that will be etched in your memory and serve to prove that Drive is a work of cinematic art, not just an entertaining revenge thriller.
Driver is a rigorous professional. When he isn’t working part-time as a Hollywood stunt driver and grease monkey at a garage, he takes the odd job as a wheelman for robberies. He sticks to his own set of rules when it comes to driving allowing for greater control and anonymity. The size of the score doesn’t matter to him. He doesn’t sit in on how the job is staged or carry a gun. He always stays in the car. The stickup men have a five-minute window to get in and get out. If they aren’t back in time he drives. If they are back in time he drives. It’s as simple as that.
His skills are put to the test in the opening sequence. Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn expertly captures the throbbing pulse of modern-day Los Angeles at night as Driver eludes police with smart maneuvers to stay hidden in the dark and in plain sight. It’s not so much a chase as it is a game of hide and seek. Then when the credits roll with neon pink script and Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,” a synth-heavy song that seems plucked from the 1980s, you start to get an idea of what’s in store for the next one hundred minutes.
The look of Drive pays homage to films like Thief and To Live and Die in L.A. but in terms of character it owes much to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouari. From keeping little possessions to his code when it comes to driving, Driver is a no frills guy with a steely cool demeanor. He may look one-dimensional with little backstory, but don’t mistake that for a one-note performance.
Driver is soft-spoken and isn’t one to start a conversation. Around Irene, who is equally soft-spoken, and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), he starts to feel human. When her husband Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) gets released from jail a week later things get awkward. Now he’s in a strange position that intensifies when Standard has to deal with thugs strong-arming him for money. Driver knows in order to protect Irene and Benicio he has to step in and help Standard with a job.
Our nameless hero’s chivalrous nature is honorable – willing to risk his life for theirs – but when a heist goes bad and blood spills, Driver’s honor is put to the test as he goes after the men responsible for the double cross. He has one million reasons to get revenge, all nestled in a black, oversized duffel bag.
For viewers expecting a fast-paced action movie at the start, you’ll be disappointed. Drive moves slowly allowing time to develop Driver’s relationship with Irene. When the crime story begins to unspool it becomes a modern noir with brutality that suggests David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.
The basis of the film is James Sallis’ slim 158-page novel of the same name. It’s one of the few times where I can say I’ve read the novel before the film is released – twice in fact. It is noir fiction through and through with a non-linear structure and small, supporting characters that didn’t make it into Hossein Ameni’s adaptation. To Ameni’s credit, he strips the novel as if he were rebuilding a car; he makes it a linear narrative that still preserves Sallis’ hard-boiled story.
For several years now Ryan Gosling has proven himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. The problem is that most only remember him from The Notebook (which was seven years ago), having not seen his Oscar-nominated turn in Half Nelson, or more recently in the relationship drama Blue Valentine. As Driver his performance is not only incredible, but it will remain an iconic role for Gosling. His character’s lack of communication and emotional detachment would suggest autism, though he is able to express a lot with very little expression. Still, when he’s pushed it unleashes uncontrollable violence and the reason why that Violence connection is warranted. And like Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name Driver has a certain style of dress that is distinguishable. Whereas Eastwood had his hat and poncho, Driver has his satin white bomber jacket with a yellow scorpion embroidered on the back.
Gosling’s Driver is surrounded by a strong ensemble of colorful characters. Bryan Cranston is Shannon, the owner of the garage where Driver works. He also acts as his handler, and he has his own aspirations for wealth, using Driver as a stockcar racer. Ron Perlman is small kingfish Nino, who runs schemes from his pizza parlor. Perlman hams it up big time, but he plays the type so well it just adds to his character collection. Then there’s Albert Brooks playing devilishly good against type as Bernard Rose, a producer of trashy ‘80s action flicks (to which one critic called “European”) turned crime boss.
Next to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, this is the most visually arresting film of the year. Maybe more. Newton Thomas Sigel’s stylish cinematography (he also did The Usual Suspects) is lit to perfection; the stark illumination is otherworldly. Sound permeates every scene. From Driver’s clenching fists causing his driving gloves to stretch to Cliff Martinez’s pulsating synth score, the sound creates a tight atmosphere. Throw in a few ‘80s-inspired pop songs – College’s “A Real Hero” works despite its cheesiness – and the film hits you aurally and visually.
Prior to walking into Drive I had an idea of how good it could be. Months before its theatrical bow Refn won the Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director Award) at Cannes for a film that looked like it had no business being at the festival. The same was probably said about Pulp Fiction at the festival 17 years ago, too. Once you watch it, though, you’ll see its brilliance. Refn is clearly going places, taking on a film that, at one point, was to be a $60 million production with Hugh Jackman as star and Neil Marshall (The Descent) directing. Now it’s a $13 million film with a Danish director and a rising star whose pairing will be felt in the years to come (think Scorsese and De Niro). Drive is definitely a film you’ll want to see more than once to soak it all in and appreciate its greatness.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn Notable Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks, Kaden Leos Writer(s): Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!