Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's first Hollywood feature, DRIVE, was a critical and crowd sensation when it first premiered at the recent Cannes Film Festival. The movie went on to win Refn the coveted "Best Director" award. For months, DRIVE had been garnered such an overwhelming response that some critics already labeled it as the director's best movie to date, while others even praised it as one of the best movies of the year. I have been eager to find out what makes this movie such a big fuss at the first place. After watching the movie, it's easy to see why -- DRIVE is a refreshing throwback to the '70s and '80s neo-noir crime drama once populated by cult classics by the likes of Walter Hill's THE DRIVER and William Friedkin's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. But it's also hardly the kind of masterpiece most people might have expected. It's kind of overrated, but still, DRIVE remains an extraordinarily stylish cinematic experience to watch for.
Ryan Gosling plays a nameless "Driver", a loner who works during daytime as Hollywood stunt driver and moonlights as a freelance getaway driver by night. His reclusive life soon takes a whole new direction when he befriends her next-door neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), the lonely wife of convicted felon Standard (Oscar Isaac), and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). But things about to change drastically when Standard is released from prison and is about to commit daytime robbery. The Driver is somehow involves at some point, and offers his service to help Standard to cut his ties to the criminal underworld for the sake of Irene and Benicio. However the supposedly well-planned robbery turns horribly wrong, with the Driver just barely manages to escape alive. It doesn't take long before he realizes the whole thing is a set up. It gets worse from there, when thugs threaten to kill Irene and Benicio. The Driver gradually discovers that all this are masterminded by notorious crime boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his hot-tempered partner Nino (Ron Perlman).
Based on a novel by James Sallis, Hossein Amini's adapted screenplay, much like THE DRIVER, is a study of minimalism. Such story might alienate most viewers expecting the standard, adrenalin-rushed chase movie especially given the title of DRIVE. The story is nothing new at all, but it's the way how Amini and Refn executes the smoothly-woven plot punctured with dreamlike and gritty undertones. Except that some of the story details feel sluggish, especially whenever the movie focuses on the romantic side between The Driver and Irene.
Still DRIVE is benefited by Refn's impeccable direction. The first 9 minutes is an exhilarating cinematic masterpiece -- a meticulously-crafted, nighttime car chase scene in the streets of Los Angeles as the Driver calmly evading police cars and searchlights from swooping overhead helicopters. It's a great beginning that keeps you on the edge of the seat. The other one is the speeding-and-braking car chase scene in the middle part. Although that particular scene is brief, it's memorable enough to leave you spellbound with the way how Refn used his camera movements to mesmerizing effects. It's rare to see today's director like Refn manages to shoot car chase scene that recalls the heydays of the '60s and '70s populated by movies like BULLITT (1968) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) without relying heavily on over-the-top editing and CGI enhancement to do the tricks. Not only that, he knows well how to shock viewers with his way of presenting violence in the movie. The bloodshed in DRIVE is brief but shockingly brutal once it happens (e.g. queasy scenes where the Driver uses hammer to torture the bad guy and another one involving Bernie uses fork and knife against one of his men).
Technical credits are similarly top-notch, with Newton Thomas Sigel's atmospheric cinematography is amazingly sensual and vivid especially the way he captures the nighttime look of Los Angeles city. Cliff Martinez's electronic-heavy score is equally hypnotizing that perfectly embodied the movie's overall surrealistic undertone.
All the acting performances are excellent, with Ryan Gosling's tour de force performance as the brooding driver who doesn't talk much. In fact, he makes great use of his expressive eyes and telling gestures to convey his inner feeling and he does them so well you simply feel his loneliness, despair and above all -- anger. No doubt Gosling owns the character like a second skin. Come Oscar time next year, it will be a crime if he fails to secure a Best Actor nomination. The rest including Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman and even brief cameo from vampy-looking Christina Hendricks are equally well-utilized. Then there's Albert Brooks, a veteran actor who is well-known for comedies. But here, he plays a radically different character that has me in complete surprise. Playing against type as a crooked businessman, Brooks is simply unforgettable with his sly expression and he's especially creepy when he does unspeakable things (Again, that fork and knife scene comes to mind). Only Carey Mulligan disappoints as the typical damsel in distress, who sometimes a surprisingly boring character to root for.
As good as this movie manages to excel, DRIVE is not without some of its flaws. Apart from its spotty plot, the movie also suffers from questionable choice of direction. Depending on your perspective, there are times Refn exercises restraint that feels oddly out of place. Case in point, is the third high-speed scene involving the Driver and Nino. Unlike the first two chase scene, this particular set piece is strangely lackluster. Another one is the sudden change of style when comes to violence towards the end. Here, you will be expecting Bernie will get killed by the Driver in a would-be grisly way possible but that's hardly the case. Instead the climactic confrontation unfolds entirely in shadow. Yes, it looks artful but after all the vivid showcase of violence, this is all we get?
DRIVE is not perfect by any means, but it's an admirable effort worth checking out for.