There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Drive will be remembered as one of the best films from 2011. It will also go down as the film that truly introduced the world to director Nicholas Winding Refn. To put it simple: Drive is amazing.
Refn wastes absolutely no time in letting you know that the film you are about to watch will have a unique style of its own as the film opens with a bumping synth score as a neon pink cursive title font starts rolling over immediately striking shots of Ryan Gosling cruising around a moody looking Los Angeles. Refn makes sure that you know from the start that you are going to be watching a film that is obsessed with being as cinematic as it possibly can. You can hit the jump to read my full review.
Ryan Gosling plays a character with no name who is simply known as “The Driver.” During the day he works a stunt car driver in films and in an auto garage, but at night he moonlights as a getaway driver for hire. The film’s opening sequence introduces us to the way he works as we see him help two robbers get away from a robbery. Refn chooses to use this action sequence to not only introduce us to this mysterious character and his amazing driving talents, but also to show us how his film’s action style will be like for the rest of the film. Refn shows us how much he can accomplish by using minimal dialogue, an exaggerated sound design, perfectly timed editing, and perfect shot compositions and camera movements to make us as tense as he possibly can.
Drive’s plot is consciously completely drenched in pulp and film noir tropes. Gosling plays a silent brooding guy who doesn’t want any trouble, but who keeps having trouble find him as he tries to help out his new neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her family get out of some trouble with the mob. To get into specifics about the film’s storyline would ruin how the films plot keeps surprising you and making you feel tenser as you keep seeing Gosling’s problems snowball as he continues to try to do good.
Drive could have been a standard entertaining action movie in another director’s hands, but Refn’s direction elevates the film to an incredible degree and it’s easy to see why he won the directing prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Absolutely every single shot during Drive is specifically chosen to ooze off style. There is not one single shot or camera movement that is wasted and that does not look stunning.
Refn isn’t trying to make a “naturalistic” movie at all. His characters are almost always half covered in shadows, they will always stand in just the right part of the frame to make the frame as impactful as it can be, his Los Angeles is the kind of Los Angeles that only exists in movies (It feels like every daytime shot has a palm tree in the frame somewhere), and he will randomly choose to use a jump cut or some slow motion in a sequence to emphasize a certain mood or action. All of this combined with the films absolutely amazing electro-pop soundtrack and Cliff Martinez’s excellent synth score help to create one of the most cinematic films from recent memory. A scene of a person just walking down a hallway is as memorable and will give you just as many goosebumps as one of the film’s action scenes.
What is also exciting about the film is that it is a work by an auteur who is continuing to explore themes that interest him and it’s not just a director trying to make a “badass cool action movie.”, even though it is that too. Refn’s previous two films (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) explored the beauty that can be found in violence and in violent men, and Refn continues this exploration with Drive. It’s no coincidence that Refn chooses to place the film’s most moving and beautiful moment in the same room and literally seconds before one of the film’s most brutal and violent scenes. Gosling’s “The Driver” character also perfectly fits in right next to Valhalla Rising’s One Eyed and the title character in Bronson in terms of loners who only really come to life when they are pushed to be violent. There is an art to be found in their brutality and Refn makes sure to emphasize that with stunning scenes of extreme violence.
One of the most genius and exciting things about Refn is that he is one of those rare filmmakers who is able to make entertaining films that also happen to have more to them than just being “cool films.” His films work either way, but they are definitely enhanced by having more going on beneath the surface. It’s just up to you if you want to read into it or not. Drive works as both a “badass movie” and as an “arthouse film” and that is all due to Refn’s talents as a filmmaker.
I would also be doing the film a great injustice if I didn’t write about the ensemble cast. Refn, in another stroke of pure genius, decided to cast excellent actors in even tiny bit roles. By doing this, every actor brings something to each role and makes every character shine when they are on screen. Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, and Oscar Isaac may only be in a handful of scenes, but each scene is elevated because of what they bring to the table. Gosling and Mulligan deliver strong performances and Refn boldly decides to tell their story through shared silence and stares rather than lengthy dialogue scenes. It’s to the actor’s credit that they are able to establish and bring as many emotions between the two of them without ever really having any “big scenes” like they would in any other movie.
The ensemble group of actors is great, but the two actors who really shine and almost steal the movie are Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks. Cranston plays Shannon, who is Gosling’s boss during the day and his crime partner at night. There is a level of charm and desperation that Cranston brings to the character that makes you instantly like the guy. There is also a subtle fatherly quality that Cranston brings to his scenes with Gosling that also make his scenes and moments stand out.
I have a strong feeling that Albert Brooks’ performance as a violent mob boss who runs his business from a little pizzeria will be the most talked about thing when Drive opens later this year in September. Brooks, who is definitely playing against type, seems to be having the time of his life with the role and it shows on screen. His mob boss is hilarious, short tempered, extremely violent, menacing, and yet still very likeable. Casting Brooks as the film’s villain might be Refn’s most inspired creative choice and it might also be his best.
Drive is a masterpiece. It is an extremely exciting work from a director that has lived up to the promise shown in his previous films and who has crafted what might be his best film yet. It is filmmaking at its finest and it is a film that hits every single note perfectly. We rarely get a film that is this good.
Rating – A+
Reviewed at the Los Angeles Film Festival
Steve here. I agree with Ramses, Drive is a masterpiece. This is a film everyone will be talking about in September when it gets released. One of the many things that’s amazing about Drive is the use of music. I really believe if theaters sold the soundtrack, people would pay full price just so they could hear the music again while driving home. It’s that good. Here’s three of the songs. I’ve been listening to them nonstop since the screening Friday night.