By Marty Mulrooney
Drive is a film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks and Albert Brooks. Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night. He is the best in the business. Both businesses. When he moves into his new L.A. apartment, he befriends neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). He drives them everywhere and often watches Benicio while Irene works. The quiet, reclusive Driver seems happy. Then Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isssac), is released from jail…
Watching Drive’s opening scene is like an overload to the senses. This isn’t your typical action film, with chase scenes prevailing throughout. This is a textured, absolutely breathtaking drama that takes L.A. and transforms it into a place out of time. This is helped immensely by an ambiguous year, the use of 80s-style songs and a gorgeous soundtrack by Clint Martinez. The opening driving sequence is like nothing you have ever seen before. We are introduced to Driver (Gosling) at night as he sits in a car with a ticking watch strapped to the wheel and a police scanner in his hand. The wait is almost unbearable for the viewer, but Driver barely shows his emotions.
Of course, the burglars eventually get in, setting the car – and the film – into motion. Chase scenes with police cars in hot pursuit have been shown a million times before… but this time, it’s refreshingly different. Driver evades the police by listening to the police scanner and not driving like a madman. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel is incredible, making extensive use of wide-angle lenses that show off the entire front window and dashboard of the car. The sound design is equally immersive, with the low growl of the engine and the vibrations of the car resonating in perfect harmony. You feel like you are actually inside the vehicle as a passenger, the final dash from a police helicopter convincing enough to make you grip your seat.
Parallels that have been drawn between Gosling’s ‘Driver’ and Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ are entirely justified. The character of Driver is an amalgamation of numerous Hollywood leading men, no doubt encouraged by his day job doubling for those very same stars. He always has a toothpick in his mouth, and wears a satin jacket with a logo of a golden scorpion on the back. He should look like he’s trying too hard, but he doesn’t. His dialogue is completely stripped back, a smile or a nod saying more than words ever could. He leaves everyone else to do the talking. He just wants to drive. Ryan Gosling as Driver is the coolest character to hit the big screen in a very long time. It’s quite frankly an Oscar-worthy performance.
His co-star Carey Mulligan as Irene takes a supporting role and fully fleshes it out. She is obviously attracted to Driver but the film never falls prey to a mood-breaking sex scene. Instead, their relationship is played out slowly on screen with real poignancy. When she places her hand over Driver’s as they cruise through the night in his 1973 Chevrolet Malibu, you immediately know everything you need to know. The supporting cast are all note-perfect too, with a great turn from Christina Hendricks as stripper Blanche. Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the owner of the garage where Driver works, will break your heart by the end of the film. Albert Brooks as mobster Bernie Rose is an uneasy blend of friendliness and deadliness, but it’s Ron Perlman as Jewish mobster Nino who steals the show as an absolute, unwavering bastard.
When Driver tries to help Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isssac) do one last job to pay off his debts, it inevitably all goes horribly wrong. There is a mid-way chase that, although brief, sets new standards for driving sequences and a shootout scene that unflinchingly shows the full damage that bullets can do. The gore gets more and more pronounced as the film continues, but it’s strictly necessary. Drive is delivered as a modern-day western, with Driver there to protect Irene and her son. This is a film that gently ushers you in with promises of fast cars and a beautiful, sprawling cityscape – honestly, this is the most amazing L.A. has looked since Blade Runner – before splattering everything with blood and making you feel both real danger and an underlying, unshakable sense of dread.
Yet the scariest element of the film is Driver himself. His back-story is left unrevealed but there is definitely something dark bubbling beneath the surface, constantly being repressed. Driver is a man of violence and what’s more, he’s good at it. Through trying to save Irene, he exposes her to who he really is and what he is truly capable of. A sequence played out entirely in an elevator with Driver, Irene and a hitman is absolutely gut-wrenching for so many different reasons… it took my breath away and left me reeling. This isn’t a film for the faint of heart.
Drive is a heart-pounding triumph. It takes a pulpy crime story (based on a novel by James Sallis) and transforms it into a work of art, a collage of sights and sounds that will burn into your retinas and stay with you forever. Ryan Gosling is incredible, his decision to have Nicolas Winding Refn direct a stroke of genius. In lesser hands, this could have been throwaway. Instead, it’s a masterpiece and probably the best film of 2011.
10 OUT OF 10