Thursday, October 27, 2011
Drive Movie Review: Ryan Gosling as Swarthy Thug
At one point in Drive a character makes a snide comment about the movies he used to produce being “European,” as if that’s automatically understood to mean pseudo-intellectual garbage. It’s an ironic comment and one of the myriad ways director Nicolas Winding Refn thumbs his nose at Hollywood. Drive may flaunt its gorgeous matinee idol of a lead (Ryan Gosling), its car chases and violent action (all hallmarks of popular American cinema) but everything else about it screams European, from its 80s retro tone and soundtrack to the abundance of slow-motion and dearth of talk.
Gosling plays a man with no name credited only as “Driver.” He’s a movie stunt driver and auto mechanic who moonlights as a getaway driver for the occasional robbery. Even the casting of Gosling is a big of effrontery. He plays entirely against type, turning down the charm and warmth we’ve seen from him before, to create a cold, calculating and at times brutal character. He barely cracks a smile, begging the question as to why he was chosen. I found his presence at times distracting because I didn’t believe him as someone who follows that line of work. He’s too nice. I suppose that’s what makes him so disarming later when the heat turns up, all the building tension finally snaps and he’s let out of the box.
Driver works Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a garage owner who seems to be his only friend until he meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (newcomer Kaden Leos). The good friendship is short-lived, however, as her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison ready to go straight. But he has debts that he can’t repay. In order to protect Irene and Benicio, Driver offers to help. Things don’t go as planned (do they ever?) and Driver winds up with a whole lot of money on his hands that belongs to the wrong kind of people.
This sets up a conflict between two local mob men. The first is Bernie Rose (a superbly menacing Albert Brooks), who has recently made a substantial investment in Driver as a prospective Nascar competitor. The other is Nino (Ron Perlman), the more violently blunt of the two men, he once broke Shannon’s pelvis after he overcharged for services.
The story, adapted from a James Sallis novel by Hossein Amini, is a fairly simple A to Z plot thread. It’s so bare-bones that I wonder how much has been stripped from Sallis’s original story in order to make a film that often chooses to stress a unique visual style over narrative complexity. That’s more observation than criticism. Surely it was Refn’s gift for making elegantly poetic stylistic choices and stiff control over pacing (the film shifts comfortably from high tension to kinetic action and violence) that won him the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. There’s one fraught but beautiful scene in an elevator that abruptly shifts, albeit in slow motion, from a romantic first (and last) kiss to extraordinary and grotesque violence. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography captures Los Angeles with a mood that suggests some of the best of neo-noir. His interiors are drab and at times metallic while the daytime exteriors, though bright in the southern California sunshine, are made sinister and forbidding by the tension in the direction and Mat Newman’s editing.
The 1980s retro production design gives the whole film a gloss that makes it feel dreamlike. It comes across from the hot pink opening titles that suggest Risky Business to the synth-pop soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, who has often provided moody scores for Steven Soderbergh’s films. This all contributes to a sense that the film belongs to another time, a time when violent action propelled by stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone was box office gold, but Refn tries to elevate it to a more credible artistic level. But I can’t get past the feeling that Drive is just violence dressed up as art.
In spite of this, Drive is endlessly thrilling in spite of its occasional flaws, principal among them being that Irene is treated like so many female supporting characters in thrillers and action films, serving the basic function of love interest and plot mover. Her character offers little to the overall tone of the film, though Mulligan does what she can looking like a wilted flower in the midst of an impossible situation. I also have reservations about some of the violence, especially when it’s played as unrelenting and harsh for the sake of what appears to be shock value. Is it really necessary for Bernie to dispatch of someone with a fork to the eye followed by several stabs of a butcher’s knife to the throat? That said, it’s still better than almost any action thriller I’ve seen out of Hollywood in a long time.