Drive – Nasty, Pulpy, Wonderful

By Ezra Stead

Drive, USA, 2011

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Drive is a wonderfully pulpy film noir from acclaimed director Nicolas Winding Refn. Why can’t Hollywood put out more movies like this? Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a superbly well-crafted modern film noir that expertly builds and breaks tension, alternating between heart-pounding suspense, lyrical moments of quiet human connection and graphically violent action setpieces that should manage to shock even the most jaded viewers. It also contains some of the most exciting car chase scenes since Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse feature Death Proof (2007), beginning with the opening sequence.

And what a sequence it is. The beginning of this film is a master class in how to build cinematic tension. After a brief, beautifully shot introduction in which Driver (Ryan Gosling) outlines the rules of his business as a getaway driver, we see him on a heist with two unknown criminals. As promised, he gives them five minutes to carry off a robbery, then drives them to safety before disappearing into the night, as anonymous to the two criminals as he is to the cops he helps them evade. Using a police radio in order to track their progress in attempting to catch him, Driver uses his wits and consummate skill in the profession that bears his name (a small joke on my part; his actual name is never said in the film) to outsmart numerous patrol cars and even a police helicopter without ever breaking a sweat. It is a bravura opening perfectly set to a brilliant score by Cliff Martinez, perhaps best known as Steven Soderbergh’s favorite composer, that subtly evokes a ticking stopwatch in this scene in order to underscore the tension.

Martinez shows his range later in the film when he is equally adept at creating a mood of doomed romance reminiscent of the hard-boiled genre pictures to which Drive is a more than worthy addition. More than any other film in recent memory, Drive reminded me of David Lynch’s highly underrated Wild at Heart (1990), a gritty but wonderfully stylish slice of Americana with a hero who is nothing more or less than pure, white-hot rock n’ roll. Gosling’s performance is, of course, much more subdued and laconic than that of Nicolas Cage as Sailor (pretty much every major actor except Al Pacino would be), and the film itself is similarly understated in many ways, but its style recalls Lynch’s fetishization of cars and extreme, righteous violence. Driver even wears an iconic jacket similar to Sailor’s beloved snake-skin one, though he never feels the need to expound philosophically on its meaning. The film likewise achieves transcendent poetry without being showy about it, particularly in a scene involving Driver, Benicio and an unspent bullet the latter has been given, and a later scene between Driver and Irene in an elevator.

The story of Drive is simple enough, though the characterizations make it more interesting: Driver becomes enamored of his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and befriends her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). When Benicio’s father (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison still owing a great deal of money to gangsters who protected him while inside, Driver takes it upon himself to help with releasing him from this debt, in order to ensure the safety of Benicio and Irene. This involves putting himself – as well as his father figure, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) – at great risk as he tangles with underworld heavies like Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). Along with Gosling’s stellar turn as Driver, which is another piece in the continuing legacy of his astounding versatility as an actor, these three are the detailed, idiosyncratic performances that help to elevate the film beyond a mere exercise in style. The relationship between Rose and Shannon is particularly interesting as a sort of dark parallel to that of Shannon and Driver himself. While attempting not to spoil any of the many great scenes in this film, I will say that the final one between these two is one of the best. Perlman likewise portrays Nino as a ruthless, dangerous man with utter conviction, but his characterization still leaves room for unexpected vulnerability and empathy. His confrontation with Driver on the edge of the ocean is an astounding scene in a film absolutely overflowing with them.

The least compelling of the primary characters is Irene, but this can hardly be blamed on Mulligan’s performance; it is simply that her character’s primary function is the classic damsel in distress. Personally, I can’t really consider this point against the film, as it is a genre picture in its purest form, without ironic detachment or revisionism. To complain about a lack of depth in its female lead or the romance between she and Driver would be akin to bemoaning the lack of significant female characters in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). It may be difficult to believe that a normal man would put himself in such danger for a woman with whom his connection seems so tenuous, but Driver is far from a normal man, and putting himself in danger is what he seems to do best. He is an enigma, with no apparent past or future, and while not much is actually spoken aloud between he and Irene, there is a tenderness and a sense of peace when they are together that makes it believable.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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