Giovanni's Movie Review: DRIVE
Published: August 22, 2011 - 5:05pm
Ten summers ago, The Fast and the Furious raced into theaters and won over audiences with its hip style and high-octane action. Since then, four more films have been added to the series, each one ramping up the thrills often at the expense of story and character. But is there room for both excitement and depth in the world of car-centric films, a genre often written off as brainless fun? Judging by Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s stab at the automotive-thriller, the answer is undoubtedly “Yes.”
On paper, the plot sounds simple. Ryan Gosling plays an, unnamed Hollywood stunt driver, who lends his talent to heists in need of a getaway man. While technically a criminal, his kind-hearted persona lands him in something of a relationship with his neighbor Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, while her husband sits in prison. His compassion for her leads to a dangerous job in an attempt to protect Irene and her son from her husband’s mobster debt collectors.
For some movies, that’s the bare bones put forth to justify fast cars and big explosions. But Refn isn’t interested in creating a run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster. In fact, action is virtually absent in the first half of the film; the only real “stunt” is one of the protagonist’s big-budget, Hollywood car crashes. Instead, time is used to fully develop each character and their relationships with one another. Screenwriter Hossein Amini may be working with familiar archetypes—the strong and silent hero, the mother in distress, the wise-cracking-yet-downright-sinister mobsters—but the characters never feel like automatons pumped out just to shove behind a steering wheel or gun.
That’s due in large part to the performances put forth by the entire cast, though specifically Ryan Gosling, who plays his role with incredible restraint. While he rarely breaks his “cool” face, —if he can pull off a British accent, I’ll nominate him to be the next James Bond—he’s a master of body language, using subtle twitches and shakes to express the mounting panic beneath his calm exterior. At times, he channels that darling romantic you’ve come to swoon over in post-Notebook America, but he displays a previously unseen versatility here as a ticking time bomb, prepared to dip into nearly-psychopathic violence if that’s what it’ll take to save his loved ones. During a conversation over cartoon villains, Gosling’s character asks Irene’s son how he can be sure that all animated sharks are bad guys. “I mean, look at him,” the boy responds, “does he seem like a good guy to you?” At times, you may have to stop and ask the same question of our crime-aiding hero.
The performances don’t just help in creating complex characters; they raise the stakes, giving the central conflict more importance—an urgency lacking in many action movies. If we don’t care about the characters, then there’s no reason to care about their fate. Carey Mulligan, for example, plays Irene as a real woman struggling to give her son a safe life, despite growing up surrounded by violence. She’s not simply a pretty face to hang on the crook of the protagonist’s arm, but a human being fighting to survive in the face of a dark world. Wouldn’t it be a shame if someone like that were to be senselessly murdered? Especially by people like Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks), both played with perfect mobster-coldness. These are the kind of men that mothers invent to scare their children into behaving.
But of course, the movie wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t deliver the action set up by the character-centric first half. And, trust me, it does. The sheer brutality that inevitably erupts makes David Cronenberg seem like a wholesome family director. When it hits, it comes as an absolute shock, and that’s what makes Drive truly spectacular. If a movie is billed as an action-thriller, a certain expectation is put into place. There will be blood, excitement, and fun. But once so much time has been spent watching these characters try to break away from violence, it’s unsettling to watch them slip so deeply into it. In Transformers, hundreds of people can be killed without inciting a single ounce of sympathy. Here, every gunshot, every stab wound, every kick to the skull hits with such intensity that it feels as if the viewer themself is being attacked. If you’ve come to the movies for schadenfreude, look elsewhere; this is cinema at it’s most savage.
Drive may not cure our culture’s collective desensitization towards violence, but it sure is a thrilling jolt into reality. Rather than passing off bloodshed as escapist entertainment, Refn leaves the audience with the protagonist’s own conflict; do we hide from violence, or embrace it as our most primal survival instinct? Some may find themselves covering your eyes during scenes, but don’t be surprised if you see those same people peeking through their fingers in awe.
Driver (RYAN GOSLING) is a stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night. Doesn’t matter what job he does, Driver is most comfortable behind the wheel of a car. Shannon (BRYAN CRANSTON) is part mentor, part manager for Driver. Since he knows what a great talent Driver is behind the wheel, he either peddles him to film and television directors in the entertainment business or thieves who need an accomplished getaway driver, taking a cut for his own pockets. Always looking to make a buck, Shannon’s current plan is funding a stock car that Driver can race on the professional circuit. Since Bernie Rose (ALBERT BROOKS) is the wealthiest guy he knows, even if the sources of his money are questionable, Shannon proposes he be their investor.
After seeing Driver in action at the speedway, Bernie Rose insists Nino (RON PERLMAN) partners with them as well. Primarily a loner and ambivalent about the deals Shannon makes for him, Driver’s world changes the day he shares an elevator ride at his apartment building with Irene (CAREY MULLIGAN). When he sees her again at the grocery store with her young son, Benicio (KADEN LEOS), he is transfixed, and willingly offers help when they are stranded in the parking lot because Irene’s car won’t start. Soon Driver settles into a routine of driving Irene to her waitress job and watching Benicio, entangled in their lives while her car is fixed. This interlude in Driver’s life abruptly stops when Standard (OSCAR ISAAC), Irene’s husband, is let out early from prison for good behavior. Even though nothing has happened between Driver and Irene, Standard is threatened by another man’s presence in his family’s life. Driver backs off, respectful of Irene’s desire to keep her family together, but when he finds Standard bloodied and lying in the garage with a scared Benicio standing next to his father, Driver is embroiled even further in Irene’s life. Then trouble begins…
Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac and Albert Brooks, Drive is scheduled for theatrical release on September 16th, 2011.