Drive came out months ago, so the world needs another review as badly as Meryl Streep needs another Oscar. And there’s not a lot to say about it: it’s been consecrated as one of the finest movies of 2011 in many Top Ten lists, and I’ll just add my praise to the general consensus. Drive is the most gripping and heartfelt movie I’ve seen in a theatre in many, many months.
When one stops to reflect the merits of Drive, it shouldn’t even be such a spectacular movie. What do we have? A simple story about a lone hero in the mold of Clint Eastwood, protecting a damsel in distress and her son from criminals. And without noticing it, I think I just described Shane.
In fact comparisons with older movies is something Drive has attracted a lot. Critics and viewers alike have, in a race of erudition, forged as many links as possible with Heat, The Driver, Taxi Driver, Rififi, Le Samourai, Spaghetti Westerns; director Nicolas Winding Refn himself prepared the ground by calling the movie a tribute to Alexandro Jodorowski. It’s his movie; he can say whatever he wants. For me this movie provides the same pleasure I get when I watch American film noir movies. The comparisons are several: based on popular crime fiction (yesterday it was Dashiel Hammett; today it’s James Sallis, with a pared down screenplay by Hossein Amini); an everyman gets involved in a crime because of a woman (The Killers); no romantic happy ending (possibly every film noir movie ever made). It is believed that the main difference between American and European cinema is the type of ending; but these American black-and-white B movies have the harshest, most downbeat endings in cinema. Most classic crime movies are very predictable; the Hays Code dictated that crime never paid – for the filmmakers of the time it was never whether or not the character is going to get away, but how hard will his punishment be when it comes. Curiously, when Jean-Pierre Melville and other French filmmakers lifted the aesthetics of the film noir for their own crime movies, they also inherited its puritanism. One of the most telling cases is the French adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. The novel ends with Tom Ripley getting away with murder. Plein Soleil doesn’t.
Style and atmosphere were also staples of the genre, so it’s no surprise Drive hides its narrative and moral simplicity under tense sequences, gory shoot-outs, immersive sound design, cinematography that calls attention to itself, and music that reflects the action. The staccato rhythm of “Tick of the Clock” fits the stop-and-start car chase at the beginning so seamlessly it’s uncanny it wasn’t composed for the movie but belongs in fact to The Chromatics.
That is not to say the actors are just trudging through flashy sets, reading their lines mechanically. First of all, there hardly any lines. And the whole cast did a great job. Ryan Gosling steals the screen playing a taciturn but kind-hearted down-to-earth stunt driver; he delivers a subtle but hypnotic performance on the strength of his facial expressions; his stares say more about his psychological and emotional state than dialogues could. Although it’s not the role he’ll finally get an Oscar for, it almost rivals Blue Valentine’s.
In the supporting cast, Bryan Cranston plays his likeable mentor, and Ron Perlman turns into a short-tempered gangster trying to get his money back after a botched heist. They’re both good, but the real stand-out supporting performance belongs to Albert Brooks, who transforms himself into gangster Bernie Rose. This character is one of those happy cases where script and actor just meld together to create something unexpected. Bernie Rose manages to avoid all the clichés of this type, behaving like a diplomatic mafia man who prefers to settle things with dialogue instead of violence; until his back is against a wall – then try not to slip on all the blood he spills. In this he also harks back to old movies – his role isn’t too different from Sydney Greenstreet’s in The Maltese Falcon: unpredictable menace hiding under a veneer of politeness.
Brooks clearly saw how unique the role was because he gives everything to it and makes every minute of his short performance count. He’s like John Hawkes last year: some won’t see what the fuss was about; others will notice how much better the movie gets whenever he’s on the screen.
Carey Mulligan is the weakest link in the cast, unfortunately; not to say’s bad, but she didn’t have a lot to do besides being protected by Ryan Gosling. She’s an excellent up-and-coming actress but her dramatic skills aren’t on full display here. Still she makes the romance with Gosling work thanks to their sweet chemistry, and perhaps that’s enough to capture the hearts of the viewers.
Is Drive the best movie of 2011? I think Drive’s critical success proves people miss the good and entertaining movies Hollywood used to mass produce up until the 1970s, circa. The invention of divisions like Art House and mainstream lays bare one of the fundamental problems of modern cinema: we’ve lost hope that entertaining movies can be well-made; and we no longer expect great movies to be gripping. Everything has become either-or. It’s either The Tree of Life or Transformers 3. Auteurs or hacks. And it doesn’t have to be like that. It didn’t use to be like that. John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock were innovating cinema at the same time they were entertaining audiences with simple tales of murder, lust, romance and greed, where good triumphed over evil. Drive holds a mirror to our greatest desires: it’s the kind of movie we often want to watch, but, alas, so rarely get.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenwriter: James Sallis (novel), Hossein Amini
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman
Runtime: 100 min