Drive releases at the disadvantage of unfair expectations. It somehow remained off the grid even with Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and two of AMC’s most celebrated television talents on card… that is, until Cannes, where the reaction was unanimously positive. A dangerous beast called hype now threatens to swallow the film whole.
What will happen when people view Nicolas Winding Refn’s crime story accepting nothing less than perfection? Like myself, they might leave mildly disappointed by an excellent film. Drive is now two movies for me, the existing one that has me viewing darkness as I’ve never before seen it, and another Drive, the one teased in trailers where the hammer fight is better than Oldboy.
Like any real world destination, the place I formed in my head before arriving is only real to me. It can’t be visited without playing Grand Theft Auto, strikingly similar in the portrayal of its own drivers. Nico Bellic also navigated the criminal element with his over-the-top brutality while trying to be a better man. Even the electronic music of Kavinsky is shared by Drive and that videogame series, but Refn’s previous film, Bronson, reminded me of it well before carjacking became a straight parallel. As it turns out, the adrenaline fuelled moments in Drive’s marketing campaign only support a more patient requiem.
At the heart of it is an angel smeared with grease, a return to the strong silent type championed by Gosling. What he is here is painfully lonely. We’re not told, but you can hear it in every choked line reading, part of an absolute feat of internalized acting. There’s an awkward sensitivity to the whole performance which, rather than being at odds with his movie star look, is enhanced by the actor’s charm.
Stunt driver by day, wheelman by night, this nameless one completes his jobs with the same sort of professional rules that Jason Statham popularized, but he’s far more affected by his own insulation. Gosling’s driver is said to have drifted to the doorstep of his bodyshop boss and surrogate father, a haggard looking Bryan Cranston up to his busted pelvis in debt, but we get the impression that fair haired boys never quit drifting without that special someone to anchor them.
For our protagonist, she’ll come into his life with baggage of the literal, cash filled variety, unbeknownst to Irene. You’re better off thinking of her as single-mom-Carey-Mulligan because “waitress at Denny’s” can be hard to swallow in Hollywoodland. Until complication arises, which doesn’t take long at all, the unconsummated relationship is marked by a refreshing approach. The two are able to acknowledge each other with crystal clarity, while barely saying anything at all. It’s a shared recognition that reminds me of the listening booth in Before Sunrise, and it serves Drive just as efficiently when badguys come into their lives with, again, very little to say.
Irene is too much the broken winged bird to be caught up in LA’s crime scene, but that’s all explained when her husband, yes husband, returns home from time served. Over a breakfast table Standard Gabriel, whose name seems to be a play on the stock savior that Gosling plays up until this moment, lays out indelicately the story of how he and Irene first met. His behavior is so cruelly common among wolves of the modern male that you’ll want to scream “You’re nothing like the night rider!”
The most unsavory is Bernie Rose, played by Albert Brooks with his lower lip curled in disgust at the kinds of things he finds himself having to do. Bernie, like Driver and the film itself, is disarmingly calm until he has to take you on with a straight razor. He keeps it in a collector’s case with his other blades, a touch that shares more in common with Castor Troy’s golden handguns in Face/Off than anything on the superior level of performance that Brooks is giving.
When the character speaks of his days as a former movie producer, he describes his product as the kind of thing that sells easy. “Kind of like action films” (Drive’s visceral surprises make you feel as if you viewed them in the darkest corner of the internet) “sexy stuff” (Did I mention Christina Hendricks has a role?). “One critic called them European. I thought they were shit.” An amusing flourish of self-awareness for the Danish director often criticized for his eclectic work, but it also instills a measure of doubt.
You have to ask yourself, am I being tricked? Sometimes Drive can feel overly deliberate, with lyrics in the phenomenal soundtrack that could substitute as a synopsis, playing over scenes that hang just a couple beats too long. The intention, I suspect, is to let us admire each clever achievement, but I’m not sure that’s in its best interests. Our hero’s dedication to the purity of his romantic ideal proves to be virginal and violent. Showing off his bare apartment adds very little to that. Other times, it can feel as if characters are rendered thin by too little development. Does this film operate on the notion that if it performs a magic trick for too long, we’ll figure out how it’s done?
That said, Drive may start to reveal itself long after you’ve seen the film. You’ll think back to the heartfelt power of its final shot and backtrack through your mind to the starless sky of Los Angeles, the golden glows refracting off dew fogged windshields, delicate laughs, gasps, and gunshot scares from a movie that knows exactly how to lure you in before slamming the senses like a Mack truck.
Drive is unmistakably genuine as a coming of rage tale exploring what can become of a sensitive man trapped within his unfavorable destiny. My connection to it may never fade, but like all Winding Refn affairs, I detect something just a little bit off.
Jenika Katz: Have you ever noticed that Ryan Gosling has really tiny ears? After spending two hours looking at close-ups of him, you will definitely notice. He’s so devastatingly handsome, and then there are those itty bitty ears. They don’t ruin his appearance in the least, but once you notice them, you just can’t stop noticing them. Ear size aside, Gosling does a wonderful job as a very creepy man who doesn’t talk nearly enough. He isn’t the only one: most of the characters are awkwardly silent. The emphasis is supposed to be on their eyes, but sometimes they feel like they’re just socially awkward. Surprisingly, this does not detract from the overall likeability of the characters, even if they do seem a bit weird. The story itself is gripping and well-paced, with a good balance of action scenes and character building. I usually feel like the romances in action-oriented movies feel incomplete, but the one in Drive is very sweet and feels like it belongs with the rest of the narrative. The score is very distracting, ranging from out-of-place 80s pop tunes to ambient synth music so badly leveled that it makes your ears ring. The latter is confusing, since the levels are perfect everywhere else in the film. There are only a few thrilling driving scenes in the movie (though there are plenty of regular scenes in a car), but the action scenes are so well-done that I wish there were more of them. Overall, it’s well worth a trip to the theater. 74 – Good
Alec Kubas-Meyer: With shockingly violent action, pulse-pounding car chases, and an incredibly badass protagonist, Drive is easily one of the best action films I have ever seen and the best film of the year. The cinematography alone is worth the price of admission, with hyper-realistic colors that are a sight to behold. The sound and soundtrack are just as good, and I still (and possibly forever will) have the song “Real Hero” stuck in my head. Frankly, I only have one problem with the film, and it deals with motivation. It’s never quite clear why Ryan Gosling’s almost silent protagonist does what he does. His actions seem to verge on psychopathic, but his character is clearly not a psychopath. Regardless, that is no fault of Gosling’s, and he plays the role beautifully, and the rest of the cast is just as strong. If you like action, you need to see this movie. If you don’t like action, you need to see it anyway. It’s a film that sticks with you in the best kind of way. Now go see it. Seriously. Best movie of the year. 89 – Spectacular
Andres Bolivar: With short bursts of ultra violence, subtle acting and thrilling chase sequences, Drive provides a perfect example of an action movie with an indie aesthetic. This fever dream of octane, blood and 80’s pop synth creates a special kind of tension/bad assery that ramps up all the way to its conclusion and leaves you breathless. Though I agree with Glenn that there’s definitley something slightly “off” about the film, it’s still one of the best films to come out this year and is a film to be experienced as soon as possible. One major complaint though … no Christina Hendricks nudity. 86 – Spectacular