I have a tendency to miss out on great films in the theatre due to an uncertainty about them. I can get so used to how mainstream films are marketed that when I see something distinctly different, it’s hard to be sold on it. Thankfully, better late than never, some trusted word of mouth finally got me to check out Drive. To my sensibilities, this is an astonishing, flat out amazing film. This feels like if Michael Mann made a movie between Thief and Manhunter, and was scored by Tangerine Dream. This is fully evocative of a 1980s neo noir crime thriller with its sense of tone and atmosphere and using a magnificent soundtrack to envelop an audience into its emotion. Beyond that, I feel Drive is also brilliant.
Ryan Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt driver by day that moonlights as a wheelman for criminals by night. He’s employed and aided by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a former stuntman who is propositioning the shady Bernard Rose (Albert Brooks) to invest in a race car venture with this “Driver” as their star. Though a loner by nature, the Driver can’t help falling in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict husband. After a heist goes wrong, Driver finds himself driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly serious criminals including Rose himself and the bull-headed Nino (Ron Perlman). Soon he realizes the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash, and is forced to shift gears into a brutal, unrelenting head-on collision.
I will grant that the film is not heavy on plot. It’s fairly simple and straight forward keeping itself contained to a small collection of characters. Some might find that a letdown. However, the substance of this film is in the presentation. Ryan Gosling’s character is very minimal on dialogue allowing his presence and the atmosphere of the film to carry the Driver’s weight. The performance alone is very understated and low key, but not skimping on intensity or humanity. His carefully chosen words hold purpose, and Gosling’s soft spoken delivery forces an audience to focus their attention closely. Sometimes, a lack of dialogue can bring a mystique and an intriguing quality to a character, and Gosling sparks that magic. His performance allows you to read more into the man instead of him telling you about who he is, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off. The scenes where the Driver and Irene are together bring a subtle charm and heart to the surface. You see the brightness in the soul of this character that contrasts, and later, compliments his grittier, darker side. When he has to become that more intimidating, brutal person later on, Gosling has no problem being convincing. You can feel his visceral intensity permeating the screen. I was impacted hard by those razor sharp moments, and this all comes together in a rock solid piece of work by Ryan Gosling. This is my first exposure to his talent, and I couldn’t be more blown away. Also, wrapping him in that Scorpion jacket is just wickedly cool.
Carey Mulligan puts in a gracefully beautiful performance. She and Gosling have a fine chemistry that gives the film its warmth and purpose. Their performances reflect nicely off of one another with heart and subtlety. She never has to say a word to reflect Irene’s emotional conflict over her feelings between her husband and the Driver. Mulligan touchingly shows that in her eyes and expressions, and how she gravitates to this new charming, under spoken man in her life. It’s an engaging and inviting piece of work.
Albert Brooks is a shocking powerhouse heavy here. He’s intimidating as all hell while still having his light hearted, humorous moments. Still, I never stopped getting that shady feeling from him that he was a mob boss that could slash your wrist or stab you in the eye with a fork without batting an eyelash. There’s such a fine line the character treads that Brooks walks with ease. Even when he’s being friendly, there’s still that sense of unease behind everything he says, and even before you know he’s a mob boss, you get the feeling that there’s something not entirely straight about Bernie Rose. For me, he ranks amongst the best like Christopher Walken in True Romance or Robert Prosky in Thief. He can turn from being your best friend to your absolute worst enemy in half a heartbeat without even seeing a shift in the character’s manner. It’s all rather matter of fact with him, and Brooks carries the appropriate weight to achieve these character traits throughout the picture. I love Albert Brooks’ performance supremely.
The supporting cast is also finely textured. Bryan Cranston has a broken down heartfelt sympathy as Shannon, the mechanic and former stuntman that aids and endorses Gosling’s character. He’s a good natured person who gets in too heavy with the wrong people, and you can’t help but feel for him when things turn worse. Ron Perlman’s gangster character of Nino is interesting. He’s a Jewish man trying to make himself out to be an Italian mobster. It’s not an overt part of his performance, but it ties into Nino’s motivations for being a “belligerent asshole,” as Bernie Rose puts it. Nino has plenty of bravado and ego, but not a lot of good sense. Perlman nicely inhabits those qualities with plenty of enthusiasm. Oscar Isaac does well as Irene’s husband Standard. The character clearly stands out as a person stuck in a number of unwanted situations. These criminals are violently pressuring him to do this job for him to pay back his debt, and it’s subtlety obvious that his wife does not want to be with him, anymore. Isaac shows the character’s regret well, and comes off more of a sorry man than a sympathetic one. He’s a guy that’s made a mess of things, and knows nothing will ever be okay ever again. The damage is done, and he’s just trying to sweep it under the rug as neatly as possible. However, he’s endangered the lives of his wife and son, and the Driver has no sympathy for the man. He only helps him out for the benefit of Irene and Benicio. These actors all add a strong array of emotion to the film which heightens the tone and atmosphere.
Now, speaking of atmosphere, the score constantly hit me as something very akin to Tangerine Dream’s score for Risky Business. It has that very light, dreamy quality to it most times, but does delve into very dark, heavy territories. There are foreboding, tense moments in this score that are just mesmerizing. Cliff Martinez crafts a deeply enveloping auditory experience which soaks into nearly every fiber of the film, but the filmmakers pick key moments where silence holds more weight than a soundtrack. The collection of songs in this film retain that 1980s ambient synth-pop quality, but have a modern quality that is beyond my ability to articulate. From my own independent filmmaking experiences, I know how insanely difficult it is to find modern original music that sounds like it came from the 1980s. So, the fact that music supervisors Eric Craig and Brian McNeils discovered and assembled music of this amazing style and quality impresses me to no end. I purchased the CD soundtrack, and it now ranks as one of my absolute favorites of all time.
The chase scenes of Drive are masterful. The first one is exceptionally smart being tactical in evading the police instead of going for outright action. That aspect come later after the botched robbery. It’s short and to the point being very slam bang intense, and not over indulging in itself. The opening sequence is exceptionally refreshing by being intelligent. On top of being realistic and smart, it is an excellent introduction to our main character showing his precision as a getaway driver. These scenes are expertly shot accentuating the distinct tones and tensions of both sequences.
When this film gets brutal, it holds nothing back, and hardly goes in predictable directions. The Driver never relies on a gun, and instead, goes with blunt force trauma to inflict violence upon people. The scene where he goes into the strip club wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he just brandished a gun the guy’s face. When you see the Driver pull out a hammer, you know this is going to be dead serious business, and it’s not going to be pretty. It’s a startling, powerful sequence which further propels the character’s threat level. He’s not just some cool headed amazing driver, he’s a dangerous man not worth crossing. The violence overall is graphic and gory, and shockingly unsettling. Emotion just pours through these scenes.
I am further floored by the cinematography talents of Newton Thomas Sigel. I’ve previously reviewed his work on The Usual Suspects and Fallen – both gorgeous films with their own identities. Drive is no different. No shot is ever wasted, and every composition is chosen with purpose. How the film is shot reflects the artistic vision realized with the music, acting, and editing. The film has inspired moments of absolute cinematic beauty due to Sigel’s artistic brilliance. The elevator scene late in the film is a magnificent example of this. The lighting and color tones used throughout create rich visuals which enhance the film’s atmosphere further.
This is a film where every element is cohesively used to create a powerfully enveloping experience. The conservative editing style of Matthew Newman allows Sigel’s shots to hold their weight, and establish a somber or rich tone that draws an audience into every moment. The music enhances those moments to create a wonderfully vibrant sonic quality for even the most still or fluid sequences. I haven’t seen a film like this since Manhunter. The music plays such a prominent role in creating a rich atmosphere that is as in the forefront of the picture as the actors. Each aspect is integral towards what is a wonderfully engrossing motion picture.
Drive is something which shows what independent film can do. It takes chances. It goes for a filmmaking style that has not really been around in more than twenty years. It takes an immensely effective way of crafting and presenting a film that a major studio would likely not embrace. It’s an intelligent, fresh, and creative film that feeds the senses. It gives you white knuckle action, a heartfelt romantic storyline, strong character drama, graphic brutality, gorgeous cinematic moments, intelligent writing, amazing performances, and a beautiful, exciting soundtrack. It’s hard to imagine all of these phenomenal visual and auditory elements coming across in a screenplay, but Hossein Amini clearly wrote something truly inspiring on those script pages to inspire the amazing film we ultimately got. I know nothing of the James Sallis novel this was based on, but clearly, the written word captured the vibrant imagination of these filmmakers. I will admit that Drive is not a mass audience movie as it requires an appreciation for a certain filmmaking style, but for those that love a slick 1980s style crime thriller that utilizes strong atmosphere and a prominent synth-pop soundtrack to wrap you up in its story and characters, this is absolutely for you. In my view, Drive is a meticulously crafted masterpiece of cinema born out of a bold vision from director Nicolas Winding Refn. I love this film thoroughly, and I cannot give it a higher recommendation than that.