Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Drive: To live and die in L.A.

Drive isn't a high octane action thriller, as its marketing team would have you believe. But I'm not here to talk about what it isn't, but rather, what it really is; a stylish, tension filled character study. It's a love letter to the 80s and 90s neon-noir films of Michael Mann, William Friedkin, and films like Bullit. It's an art-house take on a B-movie genre. Above all else, Drive is a near masterpiece of filmmaking.

The phrase I keep coming back to is "a breath of fresh air". The plot itself, which is nothing new, is adapted from the 2005 novel of the same name, and follows a stunt driver/car mechanic who moonlights as a getaway driver for heists in Los Angeles. A loner, he's a a mix of The Man with No Name (he literally is never given a name in the film, just referred to as "kid" or "driver") and Steve McQueen, with all of the badass that comes with that. As he explains to each of his contracts with recited precision, he gives the people he drives a five minute window to get in, get out, and get in the car. One second more, and you're on your own. He doesn't sit in on the job, he doesn't carry a gun, he drives. Nothing less, nothing more. And he's the best at what he does. He lives alone, but his life begins to intersect with his neighbor and her son as she has car trouble & needs his assistance. His mentor introduces him to local mob boss, who is investing in him for a race, and things kick off from there.

What follows is nothing particularly new, but you've never seen it executed with such finesse, style, and elegance since the 80s and 90s heyday that director Nicolas Winding Refn is so clearly in love with. The soundtrack, filled with electronic songs and a throbbing synth score by Cliff Martinez, really drive that feeling home. The film even has hot pink opening titles and credits! Refn is partying like it's 1989 and he's not ashamed. Clearly inspired by the likes of Thief, Heat, Bullit, and To Live and Die in L.A., the Refn films L.A. with an almost fetishistic love for the city. No director has ever equaled Michael Mann in the capturing the city, but Refn certainly comes close.

One might make the mistake of expecting tons of heists, car chases, and burly brawls from the film. But this is a character piece, first and foremost. And it takes an actor on the caliber of Ryan Gosling to pull it off. Having made the film his pet project, Gosling made sure Refn would be brought on as director, and had extensive discussions with him about the character, making conscientious choices, like limiting his spoken dialogue. What emerges is one of Gosling's most mature, nuanced performances to date, and certainly his most badass role yet. It's not his all time greatest performance, but there's a level of subtlety and restraint here that is most impressive, especially when his cool demeanor gives way to intense, terrifying bursts of violence. It's easily the most layered and fascinating character to grace the screen so far this year. He's a hard-boiled anti-hero, and Gosling is the perfect actor to breathe new life into the archetype and make him a real human being, instead of the caricature that kind of role has become.

The magic doesn't stop there. Drive features probably the best ensemble cast of the year so far. No one misses a beat, from Carey Mulligan's vulnerable Irene, to Byran Cranston's craggy old garage owner, to Ron Perlman's slimy gangster, to Oscar Isaac's convict looking for a second chance. Even Christina Hendricks makes use of her limited screentime. In a bit of meta casting, Refn and Cranston seem to be portraying his character as a future vision of his character in Breaking Bad, perhaps after having lost everything and being forced to start over from scratch as a car mechanic. But it's Albert Brooks who completely steals the show as mob boss Bernie Rose.

Playing completely against type in a performance that should net the veteran actor and Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor (think William Hurt in A History of Violence, but more screentime), Brooks injects a smarmy sense of "Great, ANOTHER mess I have to clean up." into the role, and is a riot throughout. If there were ever a foil for Gosling's cool, hard boiled anti-hero, Brooks plays it deliciously as he constantly makes wisecracks and snarky remarks.

The true triumph of the film, however, is that as perfect the cast is, no one is ever trying to make the film about them. This is a brilliant directorial achievement, and Refn has certainly won a skeptic like me over. Having never seen his Pusher Trilogy, I had to go by Bronson (which I'm a big fan of) and Valhalla Rising (not so much) as a frame of reference. But what Refn does here is in a class of its own. The way he films the proceedings with long takes, never once giving in to the temptation of modern MTV Michael Bay editing with its 8 million cuts, is nothing short of genius. Especially when the audience is treated to short, visceral, intense bursts of disturbing violence. In a perfectly blocked and executed sequence, soon to be known as "the elevator scene", Refn shows the driver's two worlds smashing together like two cars colliding as he gruesomely dispatches a hired gun, and how Irene is both horrified and aroused while witnessing it.

I mentioned in the opening of my review that Drive felt like a breath of fresh air, and I stand by that. That's because the film feels so adult, so mature, so subversive. This is a film for grown-ups, not for teens, not for kids, but adults. And it's so refreshing to see a film that not only refuses to pander to the audience, but constantly subverts their expectations. The plot itself may appear to be nothing new at first, but you've never seen it done like this. A staggering achievement on all fronts, Drive is a brilliantly directed and acted film. See it if you like the films it is influenced by. See it if you like hard-boiled neo-noir. See if you like great films.


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