I do not drive, personally, so generally speaking I can’t speak from experience about the thrill of driving a car in any situation whatsoever. But if driving is anything like the thrill of Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest film, maybe I should stop procrastinating on getting my license. Winding Refn’s near masterpiece of a film, Drive, is a sucker punch to the gut, something that can be as subtle as, to use driving analogies, strolling down a street at midnight and something as thrilling as getting into a car chase.
Winding Refn hones in his mastery of the medium in this film, which was pretty up to scratch anyways, as evidenced in his previous works like Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Here, the director and the star become one, in a way. Ryan Gosling’s stunt driver/getaway driver is a silent enigma, his introversion and solitude reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault and Melville’s Le Samourai. The director’s piece is just as silent as his driver, using long tracking shots, slow pans, and very little dialogue. The script, by Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) changes the original novel’s format, written by James Sallis, making it into a more linear story line with a more coherent plot. As opposed to a standard and conventional driving thriller, it becomes a character study, almost a silent psychoanalysis of its protagonist. Heady though it sounds, that fact does not affect the thrill of watching the film.
What is it about this film that makes it so spellbinding? I am honestly not quite sure. The mood of the film is spelled out in its music, much of the time, using neo-1980’s sounding tracks that are, in a way, characters themselves. The music, though, helps underline the character of the Driver, someone so contemplative and one whose expressions could be used to fill a book that the character remains complex and not completely readable. A film that transcends every genre you could try to pigeonhole it in (neo-noir, crime, action, thriller, etc.); the music acts somewhat as a narrator. Illustrating the complexity of Gosling’s Driver with No Name, the music’s tone shifts appropriately to whatever the mood is in the current scene, reflecting the feeling of Gosling’s emotions. It makes complete sense that the music would play an integral part into the construction of Winding Refn’s film. What else do you do when you’re in the car, especially as a passenger? You stare out the window, contemplating the meaning of life and you listen to music. The music shifts from diegetic to non-diegetic, where sometimes the Driver is aware of the music and others when only we, the audience can hear it. It may be only conjecture, but if the music can be accepted as both an underlining of who the Driver is as a character as well as a narrator, the music can not only be seen as soundtrack to the film but also to the Driver’s life. It is almost as if the Driver is perfectly conscious of the music playing in his head, the mental playlist he has created that describes who he is. Regardless of what it is, the use of songs like “Nightcall” and “A Real Hero” accentuate the gritty mood for this masterpiece.
Every emotion is discernible on Ryan Gosling’s face and, while that may be true, it doesn’t make him easier to read. It does, however, make his performance that much more interesting and powerful. He is a mystery, one whose past is unknown to anyone in the film, even to the two closest people to him in the film, Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the boss of an auto-repair shop, and Carey Mulligan, the woman whom he falls for and whose husband he attempts to help so that she and her family are safe from the men after her husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac). Perhaps this is a defense mechanism, but nevertheless, the Enigmatic Driver never really reveals himself to anyone. Gosling’s portrayal of such a stunning character, a silent one who is mostly influenced and moved by the sheer atmosphere, is incredible. Well known for his romantic leading roles in stuff like The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid Love, Gosling feels much more at home here in a hybrid crime drama-neo noir. He is able to delve into character and become the Driver, an important aspect of the film. Without him, the film would probably fall to pieces. Because the film is so contemplative and devoid of dialogue, it would take complete dedication for an actor to really jump into the role. What Gosling does with the character is make it his own, creating a perfect amalgam of the existential hero from so many great films. It is not a derivative character, but one molded and shaped at Gosling’s (and Refn’s) will. He is one of the most elusive and intriguing characters in recent memory.
The supporting cast is great, filled with interesting and colorful characters. Mulligan plays Irene with a sensitive fragility, just as quiet as the protagonist, and just as tender. This mutual tenderness may be why the two characters work so well and fall in love with one another so easily. Even though it’s a quiet portrayal, it is not so understated that it is not noticeable; it is a perfectly noticeable role. The silence between the two, especially when in the car, is their own form of communication. They are, to some extent, kindred souls. They are able to create intimacy without anything physical. Just a look and just the music on the radio; that’s all they need. It reminds me of the line from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in which Uma Thurman’s Mia says, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. Where you can just shut the f*** up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”
Albert Brooks plays against type in a stunning turn as a mobster who, originally, planned on investing in this Driver to race cars for him. Shame that didn’t go so well. This Brooks, who is certainly not the same guy we love and kind of loathe in Broadcast News or even Finding Nemo, is violent, unpredictable, and smarmy. He takes pleasure in getting as much as he can and at any cost. It is honestly a little shocking to see Brooks in such a violent role, verbally and physically, but it is thrilling nonetheless. Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy, Cronos) also shows his villainous side as a foul mouthed, ruthless Jewish mobster who owns, of all things, a pizzeria. With a slight Stallone-esque mumble, Perlman remains just as fearful as normal.
Ryan Gosling may be the star of the show, but an element of the film that accentuates the existential tone of the film is Drive’s superb cinematography. Newton Thomas Sigel, who worked with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects, creates a perfectly constructed symphony of slowly moving images. Slow and swift, the tracking shots throughout the film again accentuate the tone of the film. The film is so beautiful looking that you could blindly pick a random still from the film and it would be a work of art. The lighting is extraordinary, the tones shifting from scene to scene to reflect the mood of the Driver. Looking at this film wowed me and intoxicated me, for it is a stunning film to see.
Cut to the chase (scenes)? Yes, it can be a rather violent film. But the violence comes out of nowhere, which shook me to my core. The shocking inclusion and unexpectedness of the violence is perfect. Refn has said that the film is a bit of a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver, and like that film, its violence quakes on the screen. Drive, with its somewhat glacial pacing and quiet and serene mood, lulls you into a false sense of security and then, to put it bluntly, blows your mind. The car chases are just as exciting. Resembling the car chases more like Bullitt and The French Connection, in that the cinematography and look is cohesive and discernible (as opposed to chaotic, ahem Fast and the Furious), the chases pumped adrenaline into my veins. Tense and taut, the chase scenes were memorable and exciting.
Drive is a memorable exercise in subtlety as well as showmanship. It is at once complex and simple. Its protagonist embodies the existential hero, so well portrayed by Gosling. It is fair to say that the film was robbed of several Academy Award nominations this year: Director (Refn, who luckily won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival), Cinematography, Actor (Gosling), Supporting Actress (Mulligan), Editing, and Supporting Actor (Brooks). It managed to nab one nomination and an important one for the film, Sound Editing. Sound plays a huge role in the tone, making one feel there with the characters. It is not complete silence, as the whirring of cars pass by. Paying homage to the great car chase films and even Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s “Lonely Man”, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a carefully executed thrill, and one of the best films from 2011. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s gonna be an exhilarating ride.