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Drive Review

Nicolas Winding Refn has had an interesting career so far. At one point, he was making duds that were so ignored that they left his production company bankrupt and forced him to make sequels of his smash hit debut Pusher just to bounce back financially; but once re-established, Refn delivered two festival favorites back-to-back in Bronson and Valhalla Rising, finally getting the rest of the world to notice and leading right into his highest-profile film yet.

He’s already lined up to remake Logan’s Run with his Drive star Ryan Gosling and there’s even talk of Warner Bros possibly giving him the wheel to a Wonder Woman movie. Big things are in store for Refn. For the immediate, though, he can lean back his seat and set cruise control, since he’s just given us one of the best films of the year with Drive.

It's his first movie produced in the United States, pairing him off with a young Hollywood heartthrob. It’s almost inconceivable that Drive ends up being Refn’s most assured film, where he seems to have an iron grip on every second on screen. For a movie with such a simple B-movie plot—or rather because of it—Drive is packed with complicated moments that defy its genre trappings.

Refn has shown to buck standards before when he made a biopic like Bronson into a baroque opera and a Viking trek like Valhalla Rising into a lyrical sci-fi-ish adventure. Working with a widely familiar genre like a crime thriller allows Refn to let the compact script tells the story in a cool, uncomplicated manner, freeing him up to focus on playing with the atmosphere and performances, as the best noir flicks are meant to do. It’s hard to care about the twists and turns of a mob double-cross when the film offers far more rewarding spectacles like the hauntingly surreal moment where Gosling, wearing a stuntman's mask molded to the likeness of an off-screen actor, brazenly observes the slow-motion antics of his gangster targets having a formal dress party in a strip mall pizza parlor through its front door.

The film sticks to Gosling’s nameless driver like an errant passenger. In the opening scene, we’re sitting in the car with him, as he waits for masked robbers to finish their heist. He’s a stunt driver for the movies, but he moonlights as a wheelman for criminals. The heist is busted and cops are onto them. Instead of a highway-flipping chase scene, what occurs is a tense, patient game of tag where our anti-hero’s car ducks in and out of bridges and parking spots, trying to blend into the LA traffic. Like a Transporter for the arthouse crowd, Drive is most exciting in the moments before and after the action. Even in its bursts of gooey gore, like the Korean New Wave of recent years, Refn has an eye for making them a part of an elaborate emotional dance. A stomach-churning head-stomping scene, for instance, is preceded seconds before it by a tender and elating kiss between lovers.

What deserves more attention is the driver's ambiguous but transparent bond with the people he orbits around: Carey Mulligan as the troubled not-so-single mother next door he gets sweet on while her husband's in jail, Bryan Cranston as the father figure with big dreams and unflattering mob ties, Ron Perlman as the shit-talking Jewish tough who sees himself as an Italian gangster, and Albert Brooks as a surprisingly intimidating sociopath working for the mob (hearing the rankly voice of Nemo's dad as he cuts a person open with a knife may prove traumatizing). All of them fill out an unusually yet perfectly cast ensemble.

Gosling has already won respects talent-wise with spectacular dramatic performances in movies like Half Nelson and Blue Valentine, but here Refn is aiming for cult worship—he seems to want to make his male audience members see themselves as Gosling in a manner as idealized as The Notebook made female audience members see themselves with Gosling. As the protagonist in Drive, his name is never revealed, he rarely talks in full sentences, he wears an iconic jacket with an emblazoned golden scorpion, he always knows what to do in any given situation, he’s disciplined to precision, fearless, and can even be terrifying when he needs to be. In one unforgettable scene, he threatens to punch a mortified Christina Hendricks in the mug, and we absolutely believe that our hero would do it, just from the way Gosling’s body language sells the threat. This guy is like the best parts of Clint Eastwood, Chow Yun-fat and Kurt Russell hand-delivered in an A&F model’s body.

That quality is precisely what makes the character magnetic while staying enigmatic; we in fact learn nothing about his background, which stays a mystery to the very end, but we learn all about him where it counts. Refn deliberately puts long pauses between dialogue as the camera loiters on the characters' faces, as if to invite us to imagine a pulpy Mickey Spillane voiceover we never hear that clues us in on a backstory that's relevant to the topic at hand. Gosling's reserved half-smiles at Carey Mulligan tells us why he bothers to sacrifice himself for another man's benefit, and the way he squints his eyes just so as he talks to Albert Brooks is like a map to what he sees in his future.

Refn isn’t only giving us the bare essentials and leaving the detailed world-building to us. If that was the case, Drive would be as genre-driven as its premise suggests. Every bit omitted feels calculated; the work of a filmmaker who knows just how much he wants to let on. Early on, we find out that, as exciting the life of a man whose day and night jobs both involve driving through danger, his favorite thing to do is to just get inside a car and drive down a dark road while listening to music. Somehow, that's all we need to know to want to keep watching him drive all the way to the end.

"Drive" opens September 16, 2011 and is rated R. Crime-Thriller, Drama. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Written by Hossein Amini. Starring Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Ryan Gosling.

Sep
16
2011
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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