Ryan Gosling plays The Driver in Nic Refn's Melville-esque Drive (2011)...
Warning! This review contains spoilers.
If you'd told me 12 months ago that the coolest, glossiest neo-noir of the 21st Century would be directed by Nic Refn, helmer of TV's Marple: Nemesis (2007), and star The Notebook's (Cassavetes, 2004) breakout heartthrob Ryan Gosling, then I'd have probably laughed you out of the room. But here we are, 12 months down the line, and Drive has emerged as exactly that - a red-hot, neon-lit B-movie recalling Sergio Leone, Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann. In the interest of fairness, Refn's TV Marple movie isn't the most representative of his canon, which he has carved out in bold, claret-red strokes, focusing on brutish portrayals of mythic machismo, from the charming titular psychopath of 2008's Bronson to the mute warrior of his arthouse norseploitation epic Valhalla Rising (2009). And Gosling has long since established his trademark line in quiet introspection, following his wounded turn in the Oscar-nominated Half Nelson (Boden, Fleck, 2006). The actor hand-picked Refn after Neill Marshall left the project (at this point it was still a Hugh Jackman vehicle) and his choice seems to have paid off - the pair are currently shooting boxing drama Only God Forgives in Thailand, and even have a Logan's Run (Anderson, 1976) remake in the pipeline.
Truth be told, there's absolutely no reason for you to be reading this review. After a barnstorming Cannes debut Drive went on to become the most critically acclaimed film of 2011, and with the DVD/Blu-Ray due out on Monday I'm one of the last people in the world to be singing its praises. I'm late to the party, I know, but hopefully you'll accommodate my heady rambling and find something to enjoy in this piece. Fellow late-comers, you're on the wrong webpage. I'd recommend Amazon, and the fastest shipping option possible. So, for those uninitiated, the plot goes like this: Driver (Ryan Gosling) is an enigmatic Hollywood stuntman, part-time mechanic at Shannon's (Bryan Cranston) repair store, and all-round lonely soul. His retro satin jacket (embellished with a striking yellow scorpion, very Kenneth Anger) reminds us of Eastwood's iconic poncho in Leone's Man With No Name trilogy, and his incisive blue eyes recall Delon in Le samouraï (Melville, 1967). Driver lives next door to the beautiful Irene (Carey Mulligan), a sweet single mother whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is currently serving jail time. The pair fall for each other, but naturally Standard's re-arrival throws a spanner in the works, not only romantically, but because he owes protection money to the ruthless Cook (James Biberi), who threatens the family's safety. One double-cross later and Driver is out to wreak vengeance on those who wronged him...
Gosling's performance has been widely celebrated, although an observation I'm frequently surprised by is that he doesn't emote, with commentators once again drawing comparison with Delon's Costello. But it's interesting, that for such a bloody, brutal film (Refn sought advice from French provoc(auteur) Gaspar Noé for the notorious elevator scene), what I really took away from the story was its overwhelming emotional scope and deeply felt relationships. Indeed, for my money this is the most romantic film of 2011 - a film which lifted my heart before sending electro-charged pulses through it, resulting in one of the great sensory experiences the cinema has ever produced. What many seem to be forgetting is that silence is an important mode of communication, expressing that which exists inside, burning, and with it Gosling informs us of so much feeling; his reluctance, desire and fear. This is a man so ready for love, but somehow denied from it. His sign-off line to Irene is telling of his entire character; "Just getting to be around you was the best thing that ever happened to me." I found Driver to be a deeply complicated character, and his fate (although predictable) moved me in ways that I hadn't expected. He was a movie hero that I actually wanted to end up with the girl, because they deserve each other, and he had fought valiantly for her safety. Drive may be a violent film, but to my mind it is also an honest portrayal of enduring love. In fact, I'm reminded of Tarantino's True Romance (Scott, 1993) defense, in which he stated that just because the movie has blood and guns and swearing, that doesn't mean the title is ironic... "This is True Romance."
Cliff Martinez's fluxing synth score just oozes sex, with tracks like 'Bride Of Deluxe' creating the sense of a city constantly in motion, alive and writhing, and all moving to the same beat. Elsewhere 'Kick Your Teeth' and 'Skull Crushing' get under the skin of Driver's dangerous side, with the latter track exposing what Gosling called his "werewolf" moment. But there are softer tracks too - 'He Had A Good Time' is an impossibly beautiful cut, feeding into the fairytale nature of the film, with 'Where's The Deluxe Version?' building on that idea and morphing into something from Grimm's fable-fucking universe. The sound design is impeccable throughout, with College & Electric Youth's 'A Real Hero' (perhaps the best 80's track the 80's never made) proving crucial at two junctures; Driver and Irene's radiant, Malick-like first date, and the haunting finale, which hasn't stopped echoing through my mind. DP Newton Thomas Sigel finds the perfect visual tone to complement Martinez's music, with shades of purple and white proving especially effective; the early sweeping shots of L.A. declare it as a vibrant 24/7 utopia, but we also see its darker underbelly in the interiors of Driver's life - his car and apartment. This is a sugar-coated, bone-crunching love letter to style, and as an excersise in the stuff it's damn near perfect.
Of course, Drive is first and foremost an action movie, but I'd have to go all the way back to Melville to find one so finely measured, so aware of time, space and continuity - one which bottles up its emotions until they burst into lashings of wincing ultra-violence (well, that's less like Melville). In fact, it is during the set-pieces that Refn slows his film down to a crawl, allowing the audience to breathe in every beat of the action. For example, there's a scene where Driver and Blanche (Christina Hendricks) are ambushed in their motel room, which many filmmakers would have played out in a quick-cut exchange of blades and shotgun lead, but here we are left to examine every fleeting strain of cerebral matter, and study the face of our protagonist - chilled and exhilarated by the brute force of his executions. Even the film's biggest car chase culminates in a slow-mo shot from the backseat, focusing on Blanche's reaction as the pursuing vehicle kisses the curb in an almighty smashup. But it's because of Refn's emphasis of the violence and his protracted study of its consequence that we come to greater understand Driver's motivation. Indeed, the film is as barbaric as it is beautiful, and has instantly shot into my 2011 Top 10. I'm late to the party, sure, but that doesn't mean I can't have fun...
Fantastic presentation, with the sound especially complemented by a 5.1 surround system. I'm going to recommend the Blu-Ray though, as Sigel's gorgeous photography deserves the highest resolution possible. Extras are a little underwhelming, however, with a 40-minute Refn Q&A being the highlight. Outside of that we're on strictly vanilla gallery/trailer duties, so I'm holding out for the upcoming Special Edition.
Drive revs onto DVD/Blu-Ray on January 30th.