A getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) waits as his temporary partners in crime pile in with their unspecified haul, and as the police close in behind them the driver does what he does best. Straight-faced, calm, and in control, he eludes capture through precision and restraint, and when the job’s over he walks away. But what happens when walking away is no longer an option? Driver (as he’s listed in the credits) meets, befriends, and falls for a young woman (Carey Mulligan) and her son who may just be the only real innocents left in Los Angeles. When her husband is released from jail and forcibly tasked to commit one last robbery to pay off a debt, Driver steps in to assist and spare mother and son any further anguish.
Things do not go as planned.
If the bare mechanics of Drive‘s plot seem overly familiar it’s because they are. The character of Driver could easily be imagined in any number of westerns, samurai epics, or Clint Eastwood films as the nameless stranger who appears to skirt both sides of the law but who shows his true colors when it comes to protecting or avenging the innocent. His past is unclear but we know those gaps are most likely filled with violence, loss and more violence. And the idea of “one last job that goes wrong” has become so ubiquitous that it’s a wonder Friedberg & Seltzer haven’t spoofed it by now (in a film destined to be creatively titled One Last Job Movie).
But while major elements of the core setup are common and generic the resulting film is anything but… Drive is pure genius in a white satin jacket.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn and writer Hossein Amini (from the book by James Sallis) have taken the incredibly familiar and turned it into one of the freshest and most electric films of the year. From an opening that sees credits scrawled in neon across the landscape and streets of LA to a pace that resembles a tension-filled calm punctuated with a handful of fiercely violent storms, Drive is a film that fits perfectly over a movie-lover’s soul like leather driving gloves. It envelopes with atmosphere and style and engages through long stretches of dialogue-free action and inaction, all of it captivating and intense.
This is Refn’s most commercial film yet, but that’s saying very little for the director of such eclectic fare as Bronson and Valhalla Rising. Recognizable faces including Ron Perlman and the awesome Albert Brooks as mid-level mobsters and Brian Cranston as Driver’s only apparent friend in the city help add a familiarity that alongside some terrifically filmed action sequences tease mainstream appeal… that’s just as quickly abolished through atypical pacing and scenes of graphic violence and brutality.
Gosling embodies the role of Driver with a deceptive serenity that’s constantly threatening to crack from within, and he delivers his sparse dialogue in a quiet and measured manner. Seemingly half of his performance is accomplished with his eyes as they shift from focused to hopeful to sad resignation, and it’s more than enough to tell his story and highlight his conflicted motivations. Supporting performances are universally strong, but the standout is Brooks’ reluctant but resigned mobster who would love nothing more than to trade his life of necessary violence in for one that finds satisfaction in sponsoring race car drivers. He may stab you in the back, but he’ll be sincerely apologetic as he does it.
Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel deliver an immersive vision of Los Angeles that mixes noir with eighties neon and long stretches of beautifully shot calm with sudden shifts into slow-motion violence. It’s unsettling and visceral, and it’s impossible to look away. Just as important and effective is the evocative score by Cliff Martinez and a soundtrack dotted with electronica that creates a mood and an atmosphere all its own. The sound design in general works equally hard as every rev of an engine and creak of Driver’s leather gloves adds to the experience.
The most common stylistic comparison being bandied about is with the films of Michael Mann. When people try to explain their affection and affinity for Mann’s films, particularly his LA-based ones, I’ve always felt left out as someone who just doesn’t see the genius at work behind the style. Well I see it now. Drive is the best Michael Mann film since Heat. The fact that it’s directed by a Danish man named Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t change that.
The Upside: Beautifully shot; wonderfully atmospheric love letter to a city and a genre; car action is slick and exciting; violence is brutal and sudden; Ryan Gosling finally plays a character who’ll appeal to male viewers as well as females; Albert Brooks absolutely fucking kills it
The Downside: Non-traditional pacing and graphic violence may turn off some viewers
On the Side: This is the first “A-level” grade I’ve given out since April, and I’ve reviewed forty films in that time. Make of that what you will.