And with those two words, director Nicolas Winding Refn reveals his intentions for Drive, a taut actioner and disarming character study that filters Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï through the slick lens of Michael Mann. Ryan Gosling’s hero, known only as “Driver”, is a page Refn tears right out of the Sergio Leone “man with no name” playbook. He is a man of action—he has no extraneous backstory, he doesn’t do any grand-standing, and his speech is direct and deliberate. Whether driving a getaway vehicle, working as a grease monkey, performing stunts for B-movie action flicks, or aspiring to race professionally in the stock car circuit, Driver is his profession.
Like Le Samouraï, The American, or even Hanna before it, the bulk of Drive’s conflict is gleaned from the nameless protagonist becoming too attached to otherwise incidental characters until their safety’s threatened and the job is made personal. Where Drive succeeds is in how Refn overcomes the formulaic nature of such a narrative which is to say through every other aspect of this film.
The onscreen talent in Drive is astounding. Driver and Irene (the enchanting Carey Mulligan) share a chaste, fairytale love story, but rather than prattling on, they barely utter a word, instead conveying volumes through their innocent, aching gazes. Everyone else overcompensates with their loquaciousness, a cast of dangerously inept gangsters and wannabe players each scrambling desparately to avoid the fatal consequences to their involvement in Drive’s central plot. Bryan Cranston’s hapless but well-intentioned big-mouth, Shannon, continues to dig Driver, Irene, and himself into a continually deeper hole with the ruthless Nino (Ron Perlman) and his increasingly vexed partner Bernie Rose, superbly played against type by Albert Brooks in a performance analogous to Henry Fonda’s villainous turn in Once Upon A Time In The West. One of the many great joys of Drive is there is no transformation for these characters; Refn simply throws them together and let’s the audience watch the violent drama transpire.
What ensues is riveting, a series of concise but powerful moments aided in no small part by Refn’s arthouse flair. The opening getaway sequence, consisting of fly-over shots of a midnight Los Angeles and tight interiors of Driver chewing on a toothpick and clenching his leather-clad hand as he cautiously eludes the authorities, is not only the most intense sequence of the year but consists of the most original vehicular stunt work since Bullitt. Throughout, Refn’s sparse dialogue, slow-burn approach serves Drive better than similar recent genre films such as Hanna or The American. Where Joe Wright and Anton Corbijn’s respective works missed the mark was not in the build up of tension but in the release, a technique Refn masters in Drive to palm-sweating perfection. And, rather than pulling any punches by “artistically” cutting away to maintain a PG-13, Drive is gratuitously brutal when the violence peaks, evidenced further by Driver’s increasingly bloodied scorpion-emblazoned racing jacket.
Drive is a simple tale told exceptionally well. Though imperfect (it’s hard not to be a tad disappointed after such a tense opening) and certain to be dismissed by some as unendurable and indecipherable, Drive is a patient, excating work beautifully composed and masterfully crafted with all the impact of classic cinema. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is only going to grow in esteem and is sure to age like a fine wine.
21 Sep 2011 / 2 notes