Mark Reviews Movies

Drive (2011)

DRIVE (2011)

3 ½ Star (out of 4)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Kaden Leos, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman

MPAA Rating: R (for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 9/16/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 15, 2011

We learn everything we need to know about the hero of Drive in the opening sequence. It's a virtuoso piece of form in which the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) shows off his prowess behind the wheel. He will escort any people away from any crime, as long as they only take five minutes to perpetrate it, sit quietly in the backseat once it's complete, and, of course, pay him upfront.

He's a man defined by routine, attaching his wristwatch to the wheel to view the minutes—then the seconds—tick down, adjusting his leather driving gloves, and listening to the police scanner to judge just how much pressure he will be under once his passengers hop in after their dirty deeds. Under even the most nerve-racking situations (The introductory chase throws police car after police car in his path, until it brings in a helicopter), he keeps his unwavering calm. He never carries a gun, and when a former client, who's just gotten out of jail, comes to him with another potential job after a random encounter at a bar, Driver threatens to beat the guy. With his steely gaze, the man knows better; Driver knows a loser when he sees one.

These are his rules; the proposition brought forth in Drive is to set up a reason for him to break those rules and explore the chaos that ensues as a result. It's a film of quiet solitude and pining isolation punctuated by graphic and shocking outbursts of violence. No good deed goes unpunished, no opportunity for revenge is wasted, and no one gets out alive or without some permanent damage.

The backdrop is a gloriously seedy Los Angeles, where the bright sun of Driver's day job as a Hollywood stuntman transitions into the magic hour of shady dealings, which changes into the street-light-illuminated romanticism of a nighttime car ride through familiar streets. Driver lives in a barren apartment, featuring only a bed and a television; the key focal point is its window, where the lights of skyscrapers and lampposts seem to call to him as he stares through the glass. Here is a man uncomfortable with his seclusion except when he finds himself steering his classic coupe (One of the film's early gags is a tracking shot that passes a garage full of stylish old rides only to stop on an anonymous, modern sedan).

Driver has one friend in the world, his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who runs a garage and manages Driver's stunt career by day (Shannon was once a professional driver himself, but a crash has left him with a bum leg) and aids his employee's auto selection for criminal gigs by night. Shannon's legitimate and illegal enterprises come together when he decides to enter into the racing world with Driver as a ringer.

To get the money necessary, Shannon seeks a loan from Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a notorious crime lord who spends a lot of time at a local pizzeria with his partner Nino (Ron Perlman). Bernie has a few odd quirks, most noticeable his selection for who and when to offer a handshake. After seeing Driver's talent on the track, he's more than eager to shake the kid's hand (Driver's are literally dirty, he informs Bernie, who offers that his own are as well—metaphorically speaking, of course), but when it comes to Shannon, he refuses every repeated outstretched hand.

In the midst of impending doom is a beacon of hope for Driver. Her name is Irene (Carey Mulligan), a working, essentially single woman whose only companion is her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). She lives in an apartment down the hall, cluttered with her past and present life, and in the warm smile he shows to her son, Irene—and we, for that matter—sees something unexpected in Driver.

Their relationship is a simple one, as he takes her along on his late-night tours of the city, though it's also ultimately as gloomy as the rest of his life. Her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, and he quickly takes the role of the man of the house—never explicitly telling Driver to stay away from his life but making it perfectly clear that he suspects something is happening between them.

The personal and professional lives of Driver inexorably collide as the film progresses, as thugs from Standard's criminal past return demanding money. Driver, of course, would probably be fine with his semi-romantic rival out of the picture, but the additional threat against Irene and Benicio pushes him to do the wrong thing for the right reason.

Hossein Amini's screenplay (based on James Sallis' novel) is a surprisingly empathetic one. Even antagonistic characters or ones who are obstacles have some defining scene to reveal a characteristic or motivation that makes their actions at least understandable. Standard gives absolutely no reason for us to believe he has not reformed, and it's only when brought to the same breaking point as Driver that he reverts back for one last robbery. The ruthless Nino is propelled by his desire for respect among a group of which he is part but from which he feels separated due to the crime family's rabid anti-Semitism. Bernie wants to be legitimate, but when trouble arises for his partner, has no choice but to abide by his own honor code. The establishment of his favorite Chinese restaurant early on in the film adds some resonance to a key scene between Driver and Bernie, who might just be choosing a fitting final meal.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn retains the same focus on Drive's characters as violence erupts around them as he does in the film's central, hushed, aching moments. Watch as Driver stalks the hallways of the backstage area of a strip club with a hammer, the way everything slows down as the enclosed space in which he finds himself becomes a death trap, and how a single, brief display of passion is also an attempt to shield someone he loves from a man with a gun. These are not merely pulsing, pulpy action sequences; they are also illustrative extensions of a vibrant character study.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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