If you’re one of those people who claims that R-rated crime/action movies with balls don’t get made in America anymore, then a) you’re a whiner and b) you need to see Drive. This is the exact kind of movie that used to get made in the 70s, when commerce and art mixed together freely and audiences were allowed to expect a well-crafted story with their impeccably staged action scenes.
It’s so offbeat that I hesitate to call it a new genre classic after only a single viewing, but certainly nothing this good has come out of Hollywood in this year. It’s a perfect mix of subject matter, a genius director, and a talented cast. This is the type of project that the Hollywood system should be built to develop, but sadly sneak out of the studio system all too rarely.
The film has a plot that couldn’t be more simple. An unnamed silent hero (credited only as Driver) spends his days pulling off elaborate car stunts for movies and then uses those driving skills at night as a wheelman for hire, pulling off a variety of illegal activities under the cover of nightfall. The Driver is also being primed for a racing career by his mechanic employer and only friend, while at the same time develops a sweet relationship with the pretty woman who lives down the hall with her son. That kid is fathered by an ex-con, and when he returns home from prison, former “business” associates quickly start threatening the con’s life and family to get him to participate in one last job. The Driver agrees to help and ends up double crossed and left with a bag of mob money and a big price on his head. It’s all classic crime movie stuff, but not in a clichéd way. Instead the story is streamlined to only the most basic elements. It’s a story of guns, cars, killers, and a girl, elevated through a detached European art film style that makes it feel like more than just simpleminded entertainment.
The movie comes from cult Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, working in North America for the first time. For years he’s been a master of gritty crime films, wallowing in the deepest recesses of disturbed human behavior like Bronson and The Pusher Trilogy. His work has its fans, but never really traveled far overseas due to subtitles that put off the bloodthirsty genre crowd and a taste for ultra-violence too intense for the art house folks. Drive should hopefully help him find a wider audience in North America. Though still clearly the work of Refn, the dark edges have been curved off a bit. This is no harsh reality here, just tense genre material elevated through a arty style. His film looks exquisite and the suspense he creates for the audience is palpable, but never in an obvious or expected way. Nicolas crafts artful car chases, but doesn’t attempt to outdo the vehicular mayhem of something like The Fast And The Furious. He’ll play simple dialogue scenes with an almost eerie sense of urgency and then showcase extreme violence as if it were mundane, keeping the audience off-balance and prompting them to find surprises in even the most over-explored plot devices. I’m not sure it will translate into an arty crossover hit like Pulp Fiction or merely turn into a fetishized cult classic for genre geeks, but either way the movie will be remembered long after more immediately successful movies from 2011 vanish into obscurity.
No discussion of Drive would be complete without acknowledging the amazing cast Refn assembled. Ryan Gosling plays the Man With No Name-styled lead, striking a balance somewhere between a detached Clint Eastwood cool and the almost hidden psychosis of a Charles Bronson. He’s perfect in the role, which should only increase his ever-growing star power. Carey Mulligan is radiant as the girl that would be a thankless role in a less carefully conceived movie. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston steals a few scenes as Gosling’s fuck-up partner in crime/racing, but the real surprise standouts here are Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as the requisite mob heavies. The roles they play sound as though the were written for character actors from The Sopranos, but hearing those words come out of these unexpected mouths somehow makes the potentially clichéd characters feel fresh. There’s something offbeat and undeniably compelling about merely seeing those iconic faces as such unexpected characters. You have to credit Refn for the eccentric casting, but that takes nothing away from the two actors who really deliver the goods. Perlman is frightening as a muscle man who appreciates a well placed f-bomb, but it’s Brooks who nearly steals the whole movie away as a crimelord who loves to stab. You’d never expect the comedian to be such an effective villain, but Brooks as always been an underrated actor who never got to show this side before. He’s incredible in the movie, but I don’t see it opening doors for a late inning career shift to playing villains. However, don’t be surprised if the long under-appreciated Brooks finds himself the subject of Oscar buzz.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I absolutely adored Drive. I’m not sure if it will be a hit or instantly become a genre classic, but it’s definitely going to be burned into the memory of anyone who sees it. Action/thrillers like this that transcend the genre without sacrificing any pulpy thrills come along far too rarely. The movie already won the Best Director prize at Cannes and opens in cinemas wrapped in a blanket of hype. Normally, that kind of hype should be approached with caution because the movie can never live up to all of the fawning superlatives saddled onto it before being released. However, this is one of those rare cases in which the hype is justified. Movies centered on a car, a gun, a bag of money, and a girl rarely work this well. It really has everything you need out of a night at the movies and haters will only be starving themselves of a full meal of first class entertainment with a healthy side dish side of art.