Film Review – Drive

It is a rare ability for a film to both rely on a sense of nostalgia and simultaneously introduce something new that is its own. Drive, a neo-noir thriller from director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising), is a perfect example of one of those rare films. The story follows an enigmatic man who drives stunt cars for films by day, and moonlights as a getaway driver at night. The driver, who has no name, meets his neighbor and her son one day and establishes a relationship that leads him into a web of betrayal and violence.

From its opening frames, Drive is immediately pushing for nostalgia. With a low pulsating base, and an electronic drone behind it, we see Los Angeles at night. The music recalls the scores of Tangerine Dream, Wang Chung, and even Angelo Badalementi: atmospheric and synthesizer heavy. The shots of downtown L.A. are reminiscent of the films Thief (which actually is shot and takes place in Chicago), and To Live and Die in L.A. If that wasn’t enough, pink credits come blazing on screen as Driver moves through the streets to pick up his clients.

What this film does differently is the blending of a pitch-perfect romance story. That alone could be a whole movie, laced with a hardboiled tale of violence which becomes a fantasy bordering on surrealism. Ryan Gosling gives a commanding performance and owns the film from his introduction to the very last shot. It’s the kind of role that could easily be dismissed as simply a macho, tough-guy persona, but Gosling adds depth and emotion. He ranges from mysterious and dangerous to charming and sincere. Carey Mulligan is a pleasure to watch as the neighbor Irene, who befriends Driver. The relationship that develops over their time spent together is the epicenter of the film. Driver’s feelings towards her and her son, Benicio, are what eventually lead to a decision that drastically changes his life. And, thankfully, since so much of the film hinges upon the relationship between these two, Gosling and Mulligan bring that needed chemistry that grounds the film in the romance story.

Rounding out the cast are Bryan Cranston as Shannon, Driver’s employer, Albert Brooks as Bernie Ross, a man with heavy underworld ties, and his business partner, Nino, played by Ron Perlman. One of the most important characters to the film is Standard, played by Oscar Isaac. Standard is the husband of Irene, who comes home after time in jail and creates a series of situations for Driver and his own wife and son. Albert Brooks does a particularly great turn as an intimidating and scary individual who has one of the most chilling moments in film this year, if not the past several years. Ron Perlman is his usual larger-than-life self, and almost sends the movie into a realm of absurdity, but thanks to Refn’s deft hand he remains grounded enough so as not to let the film slip away.

Drive is a unique treat of a film. The craftsmanship at work, from the set design to the cinematography to the editing, is so on point that it works to create a film that is entirely absorbing and impossible to look away from, even at its ugliest. And given that this is a director who’s turned in such visceral work already, especially with the truly surreal Viking odyssey Valhalla Rising, this film is at once an experience as much as it is a story.

One of the strongest points that works to help gel the film together, as mentioned before, is the score. Most of the tracks are provided by Cliff Martinez (Traffic, The Limey, and Contagion) with a few vocalized pop songs, including “A Real Hero” from College, and featuring Electric Youth. The driving rhythms and synthesized melodies help emphasize the symbolism in a story of a man who reaches his potential when he’s behind the wheel of a car.

As it plays out, Drive is a sure pleasure, a movie experience to behold. It feels like all films that truly know how to balance pacing, providing the appropriate lows as to rebound with an even greater high, are something of an oddity in this hyperkinetic, fast-cut age, where every shot must be delivered in three seconds or less. With strong characters that remain compelling given their unknown histories, and an emotional core that backs a story seeped in the crime-ridden world of noir, there really hasn’t been a more thoroughly entertaining moviegoing experience this year.

Final Grade: A+


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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