Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Hossein Amini, James Sallis
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks, Kaden Leos, Jeff Wolfe, James Biberi, Russ Tamblyn
Running Time: 100 min.
When a director has good taste in music, or at least makes the right selections on the soundtrack, it can change the viewer’s entire perception of a film. Nicolas Winding Refn added an unexpected sense of melancholy and poignancy to the tale of Great Britain’s burliest and most violent prisoner, “Bronson,” by adding 80’s synth-poppers New Order, doomed 60’s pop crooner Scott Walker, and contemporary electronic music to the soundtrack. Similarly, the song selection for “Drive” is just as important as the lighting and camera angles in granting the film its particular vibe and aesthetic. “Drive” is cool, not because it tries to be but because it invents its own notion of cool and then remains expressly devoted to that notion for 95 minutes: pink neon fonts, icy electro-pop, Ryan Gosling in a Scorpion jacket, lowlifes dispatched in increasingly gruesome ways.
“Drive” features Ryan Gosling in yet another breakout performance from an actor who has seemed routinely on the verge of superstardom ever since 2004’s “The Notebook.” From the outside looking in, this could be an easy movie to poke fun at: the dialogue is rather unremarkable, the actors appear to have been instructed to let awkward silence grow before giving their lines, and Gosling remains stoically unemotional for most of the runtime.
What the film does deliver is a neon-lit love letter to Los Angeles; every backroad, freeway overpass, and skyscraper lovingly rendered with helicopter-shot views. Like Michael Mann and David Lynch before him, director Nicolas Refn creates an evocative portrait of LA; a glitzy wonderland surrounded by desert, its fringes populated by low-level criminals making deals in strip mall pizza joints. The film industry is its carefully perpetuated illusion – the real city only shows its face at night.
“Drive” is at its best when it delivers its tone poem mediation on the City of Angels and the Driver’s (Gosling) uncertain place in it. It’s rather remarkable to think that Refn knew nothing of the city before Gosling, the actor, showed him around; but clearly Refn has absorbed the work of the filmmakers who have come before him, particularly Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese. Refn’s particular talent is stripping the crime films of his predecessors’ down to their spiritual essence and adding contemporary, melodic electro-pop to the soundtrack, which makes the genre somehow feel new again. Casual movie-goers and die-hard genre buffs alike have embraced “Drive” because Refn speaks our cinematic language. He intrinsically knows what the audience wants to see; at any given moment that might be Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan staring longingly into each other’s eyes from across a restaurant table or Gosling smashing a thug’s hand to bits with a hammer.
Where the film breaks down is the third act. The growing relationship between Gosling and Mulligan and her son, this new surrogate family blooming amid the wasteland of LA, is more or less forgotten. The most interesting aspect of the film is arguably this love story and the growing tension it creates between Gosling and Mulligan’s fresh out of jail husband, wonderfully performed by Oscar Isaac. This plot line culminates in the pawn shop heist, the peak of viewer interest and excitement that the film never really recovers from. After this, the emotional thread of the first hour is replaced by your typical “kill by numbers” sequence that could be out of any slasher flick or gangster movie. “Drive” constantly surprises you in the moment but it’s terrible at paying off set-ups: the stunt mask, for one thing. The criminal characters, played well by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, come across as small-time paper tigers, not much of a challenge for our hero.
Regardless of whether or not “Drive” is a case of style over substance, it is a movie that people will watch again and again for its style. And on that level, it is immensely rewarding and remains one of 2011’s cinematic highlights. Nicolas Winding Refn reminds us that sometimes the greatest pleasure of the movies is simply inhabiting the world of a film. And for 95 minutes, “Drive” makes you feel like there’s no place more exciting to be than the passenger seat of Ryan Gosling’s car.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 9/10