The secret to enjoying Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 effort Drive is in this line of dialogue, delivered by Albert Brooks:
I used to produce movies. In the ‘80s. Kind of like action films. Sexy stuff. One critic called them European. I thought they were shit.
Drive is not trying to be a 2000s action film like The Transporter, although its commercials might have made you think so. Instead, it’s basically trying to be the best one of those ‘80s movies ever.
The problem with those sort of ’80s movies was not the action and the sex; those aspects were usually well-executed. The problem was that they had bad acting and flat characters with no real motivation or reaction to the things that happened to them. Refn is making an homage to those movies, while at the same time putting a minimalist arthouse-type spin on them, and he does a fine job of it.
As “The Driver,” Ryan Gosling gets a lot of praise from me just for making it look easy. He’s good at delivering emotion, but as I mentioned in my review of Blue Valentine, he had previously seemed to be working so damned hard at it, when the best actors make the tough roles look effortless. Here Gosling finally gets effortless down pat. The Driver is reserved, which is tougher than it looks – “doing nothing” is surprisingly difficult as an actor. But also, The Driver has things going on in his head even as he stays buttoned up, and Gosling is up to that difficult task too.
Moreover, Gosling is playing the character that way for a reason. It’s not difficult to watch the first third of this movie, when The Driver befriends young mother Irene (Carey Mulligan), and wonder why Gosling is so quiet all the time. Only after Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaacs), bearing the awesome name Standard Gabriel, comes on the scene does the tension pick up. Once it does, we understand that The Driver is capable of horrible things. Gosling plays him so reserved because there’s a killer in there just waiting to come out.
Opposite Gosling is Brooks, who delivers an Oscar-caliber performance (although he wasn’t even nominated) as Bernie Rose, a man of many interests and ambitions who isn’t afraid to kill to defend them. The best thing about Rose is that The Driver is really more of a psychopath than he is. Rose cares about his brother (Ron Perlman, suitably bonkers) and his old friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston, superb), so in many ways he is doing the same thing as The Driver: killing whoever he has to to defend the people he cares about. In another movie, one where he wasn’t a threat to an innocent person like Irene, Bernie Rose might even be the hero.
Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) is a peerless action director. The opening sequence of Drive is a masterwork of technique, layering the visuals on top of the police scanner and sirens, and all of that on top of a Los Angeles Clippers home game whose significance isn’t even clear until the end of the scene. The movie sets up its action so perfectly that after awhile, the threat of horrific violence is much bigger than the actual violence itself.
From the very first time I saw the movie, I have heard two main complaints about Drive. One is the violence, and there’s just no way around that: this movie spills a lot of fake blood. That wasn’t an especially big issue for me, but some people just can’t have graphic bloodletting in their movies no matter how well-executed it is, and if you are in that group then you shouldn’t see Drive.
The other complaint – and I have to be careful to avoid spoilers here – involves the eventual fate of the money that the Driver and Standard attempt to steal. For some reason, people get angry about that issue far out of proportion to how much they liked the rest of the movie. Aside from the fact that The Driver clearly does not live for financial gain, it seemed to me that Refn was trying to deliver a similar message as the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men: taking the money is a choice, and the consequences of that choice are not only shouldered by the person who makes it.
Even if you’re on the opposite side of those two complaints from where I am, I would hope that you can appreciate Drive for the gorgeous piece of art that it is. It swipes its plot and its tendency for mayhem from those ‘80s exploitation pictures, but it drops them into a great-looking, tense thriller that you simply don’t see very often these days. It employs a number of skilled actors and a rising-star director and raises them all to the next level through superior craft.
Reviewed by Mark Young