Friday Film Focus: Drive

The Driver has no other name and no other life.

He’s a Hollywood stuntman moonlighting as a getaway wheel man. He runs from police pursuits not only by using sheer muscle and speed, but by coolly exploiting the street terrain and outsmarting every one of his pursuers. His car is of all things, a late-model silver Chevy Impala. It’s the kind of functional ride one might rent at an airport for a business trip. The Driver is Ryan Gosling. To watch him steer through Los Angeles at night is akin to watching a virtuoso at work. Buckle up for the existential bloodbath that is Drive. It’s a brilliant piece of film racing on a B-movie level until it switches to the dizzying fuel of unbelievable creativity.

The Driver has no family, no friends, and seemingly little emotions. Mr. Gosling’s character — like Clint Eastwood’s in Man with No Name — is a solitary figure with driving skills that defy explanation. The Driver isn’t into planning robberies. He does not carry a gun. “I drive,” is all he says. And he definitely proves it in a brilliant opening chase sequence so thrillingly intense it will leave you breathless. He is an existential hero, I suppose — defined entirely by his behavior and actions. The enigma of the driver is surrounded by a rich display of supporting actors who are clear about their hopes and fears. This is another illustration of old Hollywood noir principle that a movie lives its life not through the hero, but within its shadows.

The Driver lives somewhere (we’re never quite sure). His neighbor Irene, played by the lovely Carey Mulligan, is his template of vulnerability and weakness. She has young son, Benecio, who Driver begins to feel very fond of. Irene grows to understand Driver. Her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison a week later. Standard isn’t hostile or jealous upon meeting. He immediately gets pulled back into his old life of violent crime. Standard enlists Driver to participate in a few gruesomely violent acts of chivalry. He quickly pitches a $1 million heist idea that will provide the engine for the rest of the film.

As Irene and Benecio’s lives become endangered, Driver reveals deep feelings and loyalties. He undergoes enormous risk at little benefit for himself. There is money, vendettas, and betrayals involved. But Driver is slick, earnest, and a prisoner of his own emptiness — often substituting moods for emotions. Gosling’s face and his curiously high pitched, nasal voice make him an unusually sweet seeming avenger (even when he is stomping bad guys to a bloody pulp). Violence drives Drive. Mulligan’s Irene seems like much too sweet a person to be mixed up in such nasty business — though she’s not really mixed up in it. Her innocence is unquestionable, and thus is part of the reason why Driver goes to extreme lengths to protect her.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) fills his stories with characters that bring lifetimes onto the screen. This plays in contrast to Driver, who brings as little as possible. Ron Perlman is a big-time crime operator working out of a small time pizza shop. Albert Brooks — cast way against his normal type as crime boss Bernie Rose — is beyond ruthless. Brooks’ performance veined with dark humor and menace. He deserved to have an Oscar calling.

More benign is Bryan Cranston. He’s the kind of man who the Driver must have behind him. Cranston is genius at auto repairs and restoration. He brings wit and compassion to Driver’s fatherly mentor. Refn is a genius with actors, paring down the dialogue in the script by Hossein Amini so that the back-story must play out in the audience face. Without putting his soul on the auction block, Refn perfectly blends tough and tender with such uncanny skill. As a result, he deservedly won the Best Director award at Cannes in 2011.

Driver is a genre film. The audience must watch for comparisons of the ’70’s and ’80’s pulsating with a synth-like score. Much like Tarantino, Refn has a gift of assimilating film history into a fresh take whilst carrying his DNA. Take his insane eye for detail — from Driver’s toothpick to the satin bomber with a gold scorpion on its back. Here is a movie with respect for writing, acting, and craft. Based on a novel by James Sallis — accompanied by camera whiz Newton Sigel and composer Cliff Martinez — Refn creates a dream that sucks you right in.

Drive is pure cinema — a grenade of imagery and sound ready to ignite.  

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