5 out of 5 stars
Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 masterpiece ‘Drive’ might be the most stylish and powerful (new) film I’ve seen in theatres in the past few years. At the very least, ‘Drive’ stands amongst the great films of the past decade. I’ll admit that solely from the trailers and TV spots, ‘Drive’ appeared to be nothing more than another goofy action movie. It took several recommendations, and one friend that raved about its ingenuity to convince me to finally see the film. I can’t remember the last time I was so pleasantly surprised. After watching ‘Drive’ I even sought out Walter Hill’s original 1978 classic, ‘The Driver’ only to find it surprisingly dull in comparison to Refn’s film. Always awed by 1970s American cinema, and rarely disappointed by Ryan O’neill, I figured ‘The Driver’ would possess the raw and biting qualities shared by other ‘car’ movies of that time, like ‘Vanishing Point’ or ‘Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry,’ even ‘Death Race 2000.’
But unlike ‘Drive,’ Hill’s movie focused primarily on a ‘cops and robbers’ plot, while being bound by that very same, tiresome template. I often say that a number of my favorite films push the boundaries of reality while still flourishing within those very same constraints. Take for example, Zuwalski’s ‘Possession’ (A Film I’ve already analyzed on this blog) or Ferrara’s ‘Bad Lieutenant,’ which confound viewers by showing them realistic and plausible narrative while prompting them to ask ‘how is this possible?’ Refn’s ‘Drive’ is certainly another example of this surreal atmosphere in film. If for nothing else than for the subtle pacing and lack of police entrapment sequences, ‘Drive’ triumphs as a skillful modern translation of gritty film noir/ gangster cinema.
‘The Fast And The Furious’ or ‘Gone In 60 Seconds’ remakes can also be classified as modern expressions of classic ‘car’ movies, but where these interpretations fall into big budget disenchantment and lose their edgy charm, ‘Drive’ embodies everything that the originals sought to achieve, yet dually exists as something unique and refreshing; a film made for a modern audience. Looking at the opening scenes of ‘The Driver’ and ‘Drive’ together one could immediately detect parallels, yet where the original comes off a little tacky, Refn’s film succeeds in creating a taut and reflexive police chase (The only police chase in the film). I’m repeating myself, but for me the real deterrent against my enjoyment of Hill’s ‘The Driver’ was the uncouth presence of Bruce Dern and his partner as crooked cops, which is a classically over utilized narrative gimmick better fitting in Abbott And Costello films, Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’ or cheesy Steven Seagal flicks. It is understood that perhaps Hill was going for an ‘Across 110thStreet’ feeling with his detective sequences, but the actuality of the matter is that Dern played his role as the detective with the tact of ‘Jerry’ (From Tom and Jerry).
Now putting the errors of ‘The Driver’ behind us we can begin to analyze why 2011’s ‘Drive’ dismissed all ensnaring boundaries and forged a little niche of its own in film’s canon of classics. From the initial sequence it looks probable that ‘Drive’ could become a police/ cops & robbers style film, but this notion quickly fades as we’re shuttled into the spleen of Los Angeles and the bowels of the crime underworld. The fact that this film depicts rivalries between gangsters of various tiers of respectability as opposed to between criminals and authority is the shining mark of this work. In creating a conflict in the mafia underworld, Refn’s film is suddenly open to a much larger array of possibilities or consequences, which ultimately begins the driver’s (Ryan Gosling) descent into violence and redemption.
‘Drive’ is partially a vigilante film that boasts powerful scenes of swift violence and a man with a godly knack for protecting himself and those he loves. The driver (Ryan Gosling) is a man without a story. We’re given little to no background, and a motivation for his violence that is relatively weak if not somewhat nonexistent, yet somehow he manages to exude romantic undertones. Unlike ‘Deathwish’ the driver hasn’t undergone some vicious tragedy; he isn’t vengeful to atone for some great sin committed against him, but merely finds himself in a complex series of situations that warrant copious degrees of violence to solve.
The way that the driver reacts to the mounting complications in something that should’ve been relatively simple and his series of murders, is with a seasoned and stone-faced professionalism. The notion of masculinity is veined throughout Refn’s film and while I don’t think that it’s a primary theme in the movie, it is a crucial part of Gosling’s character’s aura. Ernest Hemingway once defined courage as grace under pressure, which can be extended to apply to manhood and a trait that all men must possess at least somewhat. The driver exhibits a refined grace under pressure that carries him safely through each encounter during the film. Yet the driver remains a man without a name and truthfully after contemplation, I couldn’t now see it any other way. He is an image of perfection, of masculinity, compassion, grace, truth and danger.
‘The man without a name’ is a stock character in westerns, generally referring to a solitary drifter with exceptional gun/fighting skills and a moralistic view of violence (Only when necessary). This man, revered by men, admired by women is often connoted with Clint Eastwood for the series of films in which he portrayed this character. But urban violence can be compared to the ‘wild west’ in its ruthlessness and violence, its ‘anything goes’ mantra; therefore it isn’t really a stretch to relay the metaphorical torch to Gosling in ‘Drive.’ Ryan’s character reminds me of James Caan’s character from ‘Thief.’ While I highly enjoy Caan’s performance as Frank, I felt that where Frank acted with childish ‘macho’ness that bordered misogyny, the driver moved with stoicism and fatal precision. But both men possess a skill and have determined a formula for their respective happiness, although I found Caan’s little arts n’ crafts collage he kept in his wallet quite amusing if not goofy. The situations that these men find themselves in are relatively parallel; both having fallen into a set-up and backed against a wall, are forced to fight for their own. But where ‘Thief’ oozes with Mann trademarks (And boasts an equally bumping soundtrack), ‘Drive’ is more reminiscent of films like ‘True Romance’ or ‘Pulp Fiction,’ which means it has the ability to captivate a more modern audience with highly stylized portrayals of an ancient hierarchy—the mob.
The cast of ‘Drive’ is yet another positive element in a solidly constructed film. Refn chose actors that really embody the essence of the characters they portray. Gosling is a clear sex symbol in this film, while Albert Brooks plays his direct opposite, the sleazy gangster- entrepreneur devoid of morals. Bryan Cranston, who I’ve always equated with his role as Tim Watley, the dentist from Seinfeld, skillfully portrays Shannon, the ill-fated mechanic with a good heart but continual bad luck. I believe that Gosling played a hand in getting Refn to direct this project, which only benefitted him, allowing Ryan a vehicle to embody the essence of a strong, silent type, attractive with vigilante tendencies—clearly a catch for any lady. Carey Mulligan was very well placed in ‘Drive’ as well, though I seemed to have missed every single other feature she appeared in, even Michael Mann’s ‘Public Enemies.’ The presence of Mulligan and her fresh out of jail husband, Standard gave ‘Drive’ more of a gritty, blue-collar atmosphere.
This isn’t a film of the glamorous, but instead of the filth and degradation that withers the blossoming rose of what is seen as ‘good’ or ‘sweet.’ In ‘Drive’ there are scenes of kindness and gentle affection (When Irene places her hand upon Gosling’s while he’s driving) juxtaposed against vicious scenes of brutality and violence. Probably the best example of this would be the scene in which the driver and Irene passionately, but sweetly kiss in the elevator (Refn chose slow motion for this scene to extend the moment) and Gosling turns to pummel a man behind him, crushing his skull into pulpy bits (Here Refn reverts back to real time, because there is nothing romantic, nor glamorous in this man’s death; it is merely business).
Coming back to the comparison of ‘Drive’ to a western flick, one could probably most closely liken this film to George Stevens’ ‘Shane.’ While Jack Schaefer’s novel examined a more complex relationship between Shane and the family with which he stayed, the film expelled some of the more controversial themes of the book, choosing to portray Shane, the hero in a black and white representation of good vs. evil. Isn’t ‘Drive’ a modern, urban reinterpretation of the same character? The Driver finds himself attached to a family, for which he cares and his motives aren’t exactly wholeheartedly genuine, but neither are they malicious. It is clear that the driver desires Irene and enjoys her child, but when Standard, her husband is released from jail, the driver makes it his goal to aid this family in distress, if for nothing else than to protect the innocence of Irene and her boy.
But what begins as the kind deed of a Good Samaritan quickly becomes a struggle to preserve ones own existence at all costs. The odds for Shane were similarly bleak; one man against a small army, yet cunning always prevails in stories like these. Ryan Gosling is essentially the ‘fastest gun in the west’ according to my comparison, and just like Shane, the driver manages to defeat the encroaching evil and rides away (Drives away in this case) with only his life, forever to be remembered by those he saved as the embodiment of goodness. The ending of ‘Drive’ is also similar to the ending of ‘Shane’ with both men leaving behind people who love, if not need, them.
‘Drive’ is a subtle film that builds with tension to the point of complete meltdown. It’s been well documented that my favorite films generally portray men on the edge, pushed to the fathoms of reason, yet like Hemingway’s definition of bravery, possess ‘grace under pressure.’ But ‘Drive’ isn’t a film that meanders along for one hundred minutes before exploding into a chaotic sequence of memorable violence and terror. It begins with excitement and continues through its duration with well-balanced scenes of tenderness and cruelty. I think that what I like most about Drive is that it has the feel of a film that could’ve been made decades ago.
There are remakes that push the boundary and create something refreshingly different, and then there are those that attempt to modernize an older tale and fail miserably; ‘Drive’ would fall into the premier category. The fact is that ‘Drive’ wasn’t made decades ago; it is a new film and should be regarded as such. Many people dismiss this film on the grounds that its soundtrack bothered them. I however, found the soundtrack to be a driving force behind much of the story, one that very blatantly expressed the feelings of the characters while also propelling various scenes to mythic status. It isn’t that I think the soundtrack was meant to be an homage to the 80s, but rather a reinterpretation of a classic sound that added glamour to a wholly seedy and jagged story.
I would recommend ‘Drive’ to everyone; to those who have a generally unfounded disdain for ‘old’ movies, those who catch all of the new releases, those who enjoy terrible action films and of course fans of Ryan Gosling, because never have I seen him give quite a performance before. ‘Drive’ is probably one of my favorite films and I’ve chosen to analyze parts of this film on my site to offer a slight variety for the readers who maybe aren’t as keen on 1970s American film. My sincere hope is that those who enjoyed ‘Drive’ as I have might be moved to explore the world of cinema widely unseen by modern society. These lost films are present in most movies that reach the theatres now days, but the majority of the public has little to no clue of the influences or homages present in this modern cinematic set. Great films aren’t a commonplace in present day American movie theatres, so when one comes along it’s a real treat to enjoy these works as they’re released and forge memories while also immersing yourself in the movement; I remember when I saw ‘Drive’ way back when…