Film Reviews

Drive Nicolas Winding Refn

Rating - 9/10

On paper, I’m not supposed to like Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film Drive.  For one thing, it’s a highly stylized thriller which looks and sounds (thanks to a catchy, synth-driven soundtrack) like something out of my least favorite decade, the 80’s.  For another, it features Ryan Gosling, who I have ambivalent feelings about.  I respect his charm and skill and usually fall for it, but I also feel like I can see it on display; a big no-no for a great actor.  Also, my significant other fell for him in a huge way a while back and it’s only getting worse as he gets older.  So here’s what I have to figure out: why did I love this movie so much?


Preliminaries first.  Gosling plays a mechanic who moonlights as a Hollywood stunt driver as well as a getaway driver for small time crooks.  It sounds strange calling him a mechanic, since the movie makes great pains to establish him as simply The Driver, but that seems to be his 9 to 5, full-time gig.  Somehow he also finds time to fall for his neighbor, played by the talented Carey Mulligan, who has been left alone with her son since her husband is in prison.  His employer at the garage, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), is the nexus for his connection to the criminal underworld in the form of two Jewish gangsters, Bernie and Nino (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman), who also happen to be brothers.  Shannon has convinced Bernie to back his foray into stock car racing with The Driver as his, well, driver, while he is being drawn into an inevitable conflict with Nino’s world of thugs.  The movie’s basic premise, explored elsewhere and often, is that no matter how The Driver tries to remain aloof and to control his environment, he can’t help getting involved, taking sides, in short, acting like a real human being.  And because he cares despite himself, the dangerous world he’s been playing in is going to explode all around him.  All this is wrapped up in a sleek package with car chases, brooding pauses and graphic violence. 


Gosling as The Driver recalls other stoic movie heroes of the past, such as Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood, and he nails it by giving the actorly quirks a rest.  He gives just enough for us to know when he is tense, relaxed, terrified or raging, and not a drop more.  In lesser hands, the performance and the film would have been bland and flat, since so much is invested in his face and its gradual reaction to what’s happening around him.  It turns out to be the key to the film’s success, because the real strength of Drive is the unbearable level of suspense it generates in those moments when we are watching Gosling’s face.  Mainly we watch him watching.  He watches as the crooks he has chauffeured enter the pawn shop, watches the streets for police or witnesses, and watches his watch (he gives his clients a 5 minute window) to see if time is running out.  Cudos to Refn for never relying on the “final seconds” cliché to ramp up the tension.  He knows that just waiting in real time will have us on the edge of our seats, since 5 minutes can seem like an eternity when you’re doing something illegal.  In another master stroke, Refn rejects the current trend in showing action by actually slowing down the film at crucial points.  Two bravura sequences, one in a motel room and one in an elevator, rely on slow motion to set up moments of explosive violence. 


The tone of this film is the thing that takes getting used to.  The simplicity of the story, boy meets girl, boy flirts with evil, boy protects girl from said evil to become hero, gives you the best clue on how to look at it.  It’s essentially a fairy tale shot in the land of make believe, and all the references to Hollywood, movies, and movie making let us know that Refn is interested in modern myth-making.  What is unusual is combining the traditional elements of self-conscious, escapist cinema with Scorcese’s take on men doing bad things to other men, as if Good Fellas had been married with New York, New York.  The viewer has his cake and eats it too, safe in the knowledge he is just watching a movie while still feeling grounded in reality.  It’s a highly original conception for an action film, and should not be missed.