FILM REVIEW: Drive
Drive, the newest film by Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising), is the epitome of cool: cool guys, cool cars, cool chases and cool fights. These are things that never go out of style. And indeed the characters and scenarios in Drive are straight out of the B-movies and action flicks of the 1970s and 80s. When the credits roll and the cheesy synth music blares over the pink, 80s inspired title, you know you’re in for a throwback.
The story opens with the nameless character of “the driver” played by Ryan Gosling. We see him drive the getaway car for a couple of small-time heisters and, man, does our driver have skill. He seems to have a sixth sense for evading the cops and does it all calmly, clad in his oh-so-cool silver, scorpion driving jacket complete with leather driving gloves.
But for all its conventions, this scene plays out in a very unconventional way. Instead of showing us the car going fast and spinning around wildly, as most Refn shoots almost everything in close-up, focusing instead on our protagonist.
Things get pretty slow from here on in. Honestly, for a while I didn’t think anything would happen. There is hardly any dialogue for a good chunk of the first act, even though we meet our hero’s crooked wannabe boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) and his love interest of a neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan). The first act of the film is nothing but a mix of beautifully crafted, highly stylized shots of Gosling’s dopey, unaffected eyes.
It’s only when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns from prison—a reformed man who is conveniently in need of a skilled driver to complete one last job to pay off some prison protection—do things get fun. And when I say fun, I mean full out car chases, guns, brutal gore and gangsters. This is where that B-movie aesthetic really comes into play. For example, there is a very playful scene in which our driver, seeking revenge on a small-time crook, finds him in his strip club and then proceeds to break his fingers with a hammer and threaten to drive a bullet manually through his skull while a room full of topless strippers look on as if these two men were discussing the weather.
The second half of the film more than makes up for its reluctant beginning. It’s where I began to see how well cast this film was. Not only does Mulligan redeem herself in my eyes (after her uninspired performance in the otherwise breathtaking Shame), Ron Perlman, as the brawn half of the city’s most notorious mob team, and Bryan Cranston both step up to the plate. Even pretty boy Gosling, who seems out of place in a movie like this, brings some depth, mystery and even humour to a character that could have otherwise fallen flat.
But this movie belongs to Albert Brooks. All my fond childhood memories of Brooks as Rex Scorpio or Jacques, or even the beloved Marlin are wiped away in his chilling performance as Bernie Rose, the brains half of the mob team. He starts out as a charming, almost likeable mob boss, that is, until we see him stab a man in the eye with a fork, without a moment of hesitation. And it just gets nastier from there.
Overall, this film is a palimpsest of the car chase genre. It takes what it needs and modernizes it to some degree, as did Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. However, where Death Proof excelled, Drive falls short. Instead of taking the hyper machismo of its 70s and 80s predecessors and adding another interesting dimension, like the justice the feminist characters of Death Proof delivered unto its villain, Drive gives us another retelling of the same story we’ve seen many times before, albeit a well-crafted and highly entertaining one.