Saturday, September 17, 2011
Don't let the ads fool you. "Drive" (opened September 16 throughout San Diego) is not a standard model action film. It's custom built and revved up on style for true aficionados of the genre.
At one point in "Drive," Albert Brooks' character says that he used to make action pictures in the 80s that critics called "European." That seems to be a knowing nod from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn because his film "Drive" could be described in similar fashion. Only I'd be more prone to describe it as a 70s rather than 80s action film since it's storyline and violence harken back to films like "The Outfit" (1973), "Charley Varrick" (1973), and "The Long Goodbye" (1973). But stylistically it's a mix of Michael Mann and Walter Hill's 1978 "The Driver." In fact, both Ryan Gosling's character in "Drive" and Ryan O'Neal's character in "The Driver" remain nameless and are only referred to in the credits as "The Driver" (plus both are Hollywood pretty boys). Refn's film is by no means a remake of Hill's "The Driver" but it's a definite kindred soul. Refn is like a jazz artist riffing on a colleague's composition and delivering a product that still manages to be totally his own.
By all outward appearances, "Drive" is presented to us in all the advertising as a standard summer action film. But as you look closer you find it's anything but run of the mill. The difference is a director with vision at the helm. Refn may have done the unimpressive "Valhalla Rising" but back in his native Denmark he made a memorable series of "Pusher" films and then in England he unleashed Tom Hardy in "Bronson." So he is a director capable of imprinting a film with his unique style.
He opens the film with minimal dialogue, a tense but quite soundtrack, and elegant, long, static shots. Gosling is introduced to us as a no-nonsense, cool as ice driver. Like Jason Statham in "The Transporter," he's got a strict set of rules that you better stick to. We see him do a night drive for a couple of amateurish robbers and while they are prone to panic, Gosling's Driver is unflappable. When cops get close he doesn't immediately engage in a speed chase but rather acts smart by parking and turning off his headlights or ducking into an abandoned building to hide from a police chopper. In other hands, this open would have been all about a fast car chase with a thousand edits and a pounding score. The slow, methodical build up harkens back to Mann's early work in "Thief" and "Manhunter." It's all about understanding what it takes to do a particular job whether it's breaking into safes in "Thief," tracking a serial killer in "Manhunter," or driving a getaway car in "Drive."
We eventually discover that the Driver works as a stunt driver and at a local shop where Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the owner, builds cars to be crashed in movies. Shannon's involved with some shady folks, Bernie (an impeccable Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), who come in as partners on a race car. The Driver, who specializes in keeping to himself, lets himself get involved with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) who's coping with being a single mom while her hubby finishes out a prison term. All the players end up more intricately intertwined that you expect and the violence keeps ramping up as the story progresses.
"Drive" comes along at a time when I feel like I've been pummeled by so many bad to mediocre films ("Conan," "Fright Night," "Shark Night" and upcoming films like "Jack and Jill" and "Abduction") that I've almost forgotten what it's like to see a director with a vision in charge. Even films that I have enjoyed, like "Warrior" and "Whistleblower," have lacked directors with visions and have really only delivered solid formula films without much of a personal signature.
"Drive," on the other hand, has a distinct and refreshing style. Refn lets so much of the story play out without dialogue and exposition. We just need to watch, follow along, and then figure it out. The relationship between Irene and the Driver is so beautifully played out in mostly silent scenes with the camera catching a look or a gesture that tells us more than any dialogue ever could. Refn exudes confidence behind the camera. He doesn't succumb to the trend for shakycam, fast cuts, and a pop soundtrack. He takes his time, builds his story, develops his characters and plays his story out with a masterful sense of purpose.
The violence in the film is also superbly handled. It's abrupt, brutal, shocking. The slow and deliberate pace reminds us what it's like to feel real tension in a film. Tension that comes from caring about the fate of the characters and not feeling certain that we know the outcome. And there are consequences too. The Driver engages in violence but his actions change the way others see him. And for once, a film ends exactly as it should and not tied up in a cute bow. That decision also revels confidence on the part of Refn, confidence that if a story is well told, people will accept the appropriate ending even if it's not necessarily the ending they might want to see.
Kudos are also in order for Albert Brooks (and to Refn if he is the one who went for this casting). Funny man Brooks never gets the chance to play the heavy and here he gets to play a dark character. As Bernie he steals every scene. He looks harmless yet is capable of ruthless and violent action. More volatile and openly violent is his cohort Nino, played with gusto by Ron Perlman. In a dark and disturbing way, they provide the comic relief in the film. Mulligan is excellent too but in a much subtler manner. Gosling is something of a blank, like a man in a poker game never wanting to reveal what he's thinking or feeling. He's effective but he's not the main appeal in the film. But Gosling is one busy actor this year with "Crazy Stupid Love" and "Drive" out and "Ides of March" to come.
"Drive" also looks sumptuous. Refn and director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel light the film beautifully (even when the environment is ugly) and employ slow motion for lovely emotional impact. There's an amazing scene in a elevator that employs slow motion first for romantic effect and then to capture the Driver's violent skill but it's all elegantly tied up in one mesmerizing and marvelously orchestrated scene. I would argue that this rather than "Transformers 3" deserves to be seen on the big screen at a luxury theater. So much care is taken in the lighting and the composition that it needs to be appreciated on a big canvas. Then the images are complimented by a score from Cliff Martinez (who also did impressive work on "Contagion"). All in all an exquisitely crafted package and a pleasure to watch.
"Drive" (rated R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity) is a stylish, satisfying thriller that resonates beyond its formula trappings. It might not be what you expect based on the marketing campaign and that's a good thing because it delivers so much more.