Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn || Produced by: Michel Litvak, John Palermo, Marc Platt, Gigi Pritzker, Adam Siegel
Screenplay by: Hossein Amini || Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks
Music by: Cliff Martinez || Cinematography by: Newton Thomas Sigel || Edited by: Mat Newman || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 100 minutes
While Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has been a prolific filmmaker since the early 2000s, most people Stateside hadn’t heard of or seen a film of his till the 2011 Drive, a surprisingly quiet and contemplative yet hyper-violent crime-drama featuring mainstream star Ryan Gosling. Gosling’s recently risen namebrand status and the film’s marketing, the latter of which painted the movie as a sort of Fast and the Furious (2001-) offshoot, got a lot of general audience asses in seats, but smarter viewers and critics raved about the tight script, bubblegum pop soundtrack, and infrequent but impressively shot chase sequences.
Truth be told, for a film called Drive and a story about a Hollywood stunt-man who moonlights as a getaway driver, the movie feature shockingly few cars, chase-scenes, or flashy stunts of any kind. There are a couple standout chase sequences here and there, but a redneck/preteen-cartoon fantasy of vroom-vroom action in the spirit of FF this most certainly isn’t. And I’d argue that’s a good thing.
Like I stated in my review of the equally cool Only God Forgives (2013; henceforth OGF), I don’t see much of a difference in story or cinematic style between the two films. OGF was fiercely divisive while Drive was universally acclaimed, for some reason or another. Drive features a bit more dialogue and more familiar American faces (e.g. Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman in small supporting roles), but the differences end there. Like OGF, Drive relies on a stoic, strong but silent main character and visually dazzling sequences of violence backed by a catchy and memorable soundtrack.
Refn may in fact be my “film drama” kind of guy, up there with the likes of David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson. The man understands how to take mundane, otherwise dry scenes of people sitting (or standing) in rooms, talking, and make them incredibly cinematic. The interspersed bursts of ultraviolence don’t hurt his films, pacing-wise of course, but like the rest of his filmography (including but not limited to OGF, Bronson , etc.), Drive is able to maintain drama in most every shot of every scene. Every angle and character blocking conveys character relations, motivations, and emotions. On the surface, Drive features little over-to-top action and muscle compared to something like Fast and the Furious or similar Hollywood blockbusters, but just under the skin it’s bursting with a whole lot more motion and actual violence.
The cast doesn’t do much on their own, to be honest. No one is bad, certainly, and Gosling demonstrates some of the best physical acting of his career, but the real stars of the show are Hossein Amini’s script and especially Refn’s gorgeous direction. Cranston doesn’t do much more here than his role in Godzilla (2014), and Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, and Christina Hendricks’ talents are wasted, in my opinion. The underused cast isn’t much of a blow against the film when the artistic foundations of its writing and cinematography are so solid (a great example of the fundamental differences between filmmaking and theatre, for one), but it’s still somewhat underwhelming to see such a veteran lineup dismissed in such brief and/or unimportant roles. I also have a hard time believing Perlman could get beat up by Gosling, but that’s just me.
Still, Drive is a quality action-thriller any way you look at it. It’s as delicately paced and visually beautiful as it is emotionally resonant and thematically deep. Drive could be used as a how-to for aspiring filmmakers wanting to learn techniques of efficient blocking, pacing, and framing, which explains much of the picture’s overwhelming reception. It goes to show how easily a film can succeed when the cheapest and most basic aspects of filmmaking (screenwriting and direction, respectively) are respected. Most everything else is just for show.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Drive is powered by some of the best direction of Nicolas Winding Refn’s career, drawing its visual prowess from Newton Sigel’s gorgeous cinematography, itself infused with the director’s penchant for ultraviolence and gore. Amini’s bare-bones scripts cuts to the meat of both the story and the characters; dialogue is minimal and efficient, as is Gosling’s admirable lead performance, a poster child for the modern incarnation of the “dark, brooding loner.” Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack is the perfect audio compliment to both the color palette and overall cinematographic tone of the picture.
— However… most everybody other than Gosling doesn’t get much room to shine. I didn’t mention Carey Mulligan, the female lead and focus of Gosling’s affections, in this entire review because she is so forgettable almost by design. In what parallel universe is Perlman such a pussy?
? Hurrah, a “driving”-movie that isn’t just for rednecks! Finally.