Drive (2011) 9/10
The Driver (Ryan Gosling) drives stunt cars for movies, and is also a getaway car driver for hire, no questions asked. He becomes involved with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan). When Irene’s husband gets out of jail, the Driver’s desire to help collides with his professional and criminal cool. Co-starring Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, and Christina Hendricks. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
The Driver exists in a long line of existential anti-heroes, from Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (who, I hasten to add, had a name), to Le Samourai (or so I’m told–but I’ve put it on the top of my queue!), to any number of noir leads. Something about him reminds me of Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, although I can’t quite pinpoint the resemblance.
Being nameless kind of screams “existential,” but that script device is redundant to Gosling’s performance. He drains the existence out of his character. He isn’t cool so much as flat. In an opening scene, his friend Shannon (Cranston) calls him a zombie. The incredible first chase (pre-credits) shows us how he manipulates himself to hold onto that icy distance, focusing on a basketball game on the radio even as he focuses on his driving, and on the police band radio, which he uses to stay one step ahead. His deadly calm is most impressive when he doesn’t show his hand too soon, driving slowly and naturally behind a police car that’s looking for him.
But this isn’t a movie about driving, although the driving is excellent, and real. I’m sure there was plenty of CGI correction and finishing, but there’s no question that these are real cars and someone is driving them. The experience of watching reality has substance that you just can’t get from CGI. That’s important because this is a personal movie; it feels intimate, and when the (gruesome, difficult) violence starts, part of what makes it so disturbing is its intimacy.
The Driver meets Irene and her young son, Benicio. He helps them. He smiles at Benicio. His smile is sweet, and somehow innocent, and utterly disarming. We don’t expect existential anti-heroes to look so sunny.
Drive is a movie played in silences. There is silence between the Driver and Irene, there is silence in the car, and often, the Driver is silent when it’s not a good idea; his silence seems to come from a deep longing that we never see head-on. The audience I saw Drive with giggled during the silences; they expected their action movie to be non-stop action and didn’t know how to react. These are potent silences, and the audience’s discomfort reminds me how hard it must be for a director to choose to retain them and not speed things up.
As a result, when things do speed up, wow does it slam you in the face.
I can’t talk about Christina Hendricks’s role; it’s surprising in a way I can’t reveal. I can tell you she’s terrific; specific to her character, vulnerable, and memorable. The whole cast is a whole lot of wow; in a spoiler-filled interview, Albert Brooks describes his relationship with Ron Perlman in the film as George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men, which is kind of brilliant. Why isn’t Brooks in more movies? He’s so solid.
As the film progresses, the Driver gets dirtier, bloodier, messier. His bizarre costume choice: A quilted white satin jacket with a yellow scorpion appliqué on the back, gets more and more soiled, but he doesn’t change it. There’s a sense of an innocent being dirtied, but there’s also plenty of evidence of the opposite; the Driver is not a nice man.
There’s that about Drive which is a traditional noir: a dark, unraveling story in a sunny yet seamy locale. Yet the movie feels entirely new, and entirely surprising.