Saturday, September 17, 2011

Film Review: "Drive" (****)

"I used to produce movies, in the 80s. Kind of like action films. Sexy stuff. One critic called them European. I thought they were shit."

Nicolas Winding Refn doesn't make any illusions about his being a specific taste, and the negative reactions to his films only reinforce that resolve he's created. To that note, "Drive" works so exceptionally as a title to his latest film, which sees him crafting his festishizations to peak effect. Some could, and many probably are, talking about how this is a film about what people live for and what spurs them on, or to be a bit more direct, what drives them. In more than a few ways, it absolutely is. You don't have to be an esteemed critic to figure that out. However, Refn hasn't ever really been about philosophical exercises on the purpose of humanity, and he doesn't pretend to this time either.

"Drive" is a full-blooded narrative film, from that gut-in-throat opening scene on. That opening sets the stage in a way that almost counter-productively puts the audiences expecting an action film with the wrong impression. Then they're stuck with another 90 minutes they'll slap with the label of "boring", completely ignoring the craft at work. There isn't anything that's drastically original here. Ryan Gosling plays a movie stuntman who works as a getaway driver for the criminal underworld. He gets involved in a job that goes wrong, and it endangers the recently found love of his life. It's a general genre exercise, to put it in blunt and diminishing terms.

It's what Refn brings to the table that makes all the difference, because this could have so easily been a regular Hollywood action film, and fit finely in that respect. Refn looked at the script and the story, and augmented it to be something more. As the pink scribbled opening credits unfurled to the tune of Kavinsky's "Nightcall", I got this nostalgic vibe towards those dear old action films of the 80s that Bernie Rose self-grudgingly bashes towards the mid-point of the film. This is exactly that sort of film, that lives off the tie between the visuals and the music playing in the characters' own personal soundtracks in their heads.

And in many ways, the characters of the film are living their lives like they're in a movie. Ryan Gosling's Driver offers him quite an interesting challenge to portray somebody so physically in terms of his personal emotion. The Driver is so tucked-up in his thoughts and feelings, almost economically so. You occasionally get to see it on his face. Yet so rarely, and it's magnificent when it happens, you can feel it from his expression. It envelopes you like a warm coat, and Gosling deserves credit for the wonderful restraint. He's a character living in his own world, much like we all are.

Carey Mulligan adds a bit of maturity to her usual way of performance with Irene, but she's never been a problem, and she's not a problem now. She's a touch more than your average freakin' damsel, and she's falling in this chaos. Bryan Cranston continues to show his amazing versatility as an actor, and Shannon is in no ways another Walter White. There are differences imbued by the script as well as by Cranston. Ron Perlman plays a Jewish pizza store owner who always wanted to be a gangster, like in "Goodfellas". He's probably the character with the most naive cinematic aspirations of this film. And Oscar Isaacs plays Irene's husband, and he plays the right amount of apprehension to The Driver as he does embrace.

In a lot of ways, Albert Brooks' Bernie Rose is the only sensible human being working in this film. He's a brutal murderer, sure. Who isn't? But when everyone else goes off hiring guns and killing one another, he realizes all this craziness for what it is. It doesn't keep us from watching ourselves around him. Brooks doesn't at all seem like the guy you'd land this sort of role on, but he takes it like a champ, and just rolls with it so deliciously. All the people who turned him down for villain roles because of his past demeanor for comedy are smashing their heads against the wall.

But who are we kidding here? Refn's the real star of this film. He took an average script and crafted it into a multitasking 80's film homage, superhero film, fairytale, all this an imbued sort of meaning that's as simple as the film's title. In place of these loud and mindless action sequences, he forms these almost frequently iconic images. The Driver's wrathful silhouette on the beach. That stunning main title card doused in cool nostalgia. Even in violence, there's this second long shot of somebody important getting their head shot open, and it's a moment of simultaneous beauty and horror. Those are just a few out of many I don't have the current memory to pick out. And lest we forget to credit D.P. Newton Thomas Sigel for what he brought to the table. It's a far leap from works like "Valkyrie" and "Leap Year".

The thing about Refn's stylings is that they have had a tendency in the past to trump everything else to an insane degree, at which point it become Refn playing with his toys for the sake of it. Not so with "Drive", as he dials things back just enough for the story to thrive, not to mention the actors. They accentuate one another in a way that's stronger than the two would have ever been apart. Are there things that could've been done better? Sure. There could've been a bit of a stronger link between The Driver and Irene, though it was strong in the intermittent periods between dialogue in which they just stared wonderfully at one another. The ending was also a tad bit anti-climactic, but this isn't really so much of an action film, as said long before. Minor quibbles aside, this is one fucking awesome movie, and I don't imagine many, if any, times in which I would ever describe a film that way.

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