Wednesday, August 10, 2011

MIFF Review: Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)

Drive, which won Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn the Best Director Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and has since received near-unanimous acclaim, is an adaptation of James Sallis’ 2005 novel of the same name. Interestingly, when Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson and Blue Valentine), who plays the film’s unnamed signature character, signed on for the project, he was allowed to choose the director. He picked Refn, who has admitted that his extraordinary film is a dedication to Chilean director, Alejandro Jodorowsky, who became known for the violently surreal images found in his films. 

As an inspired selection for Closing Night of the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival, Drive sure had viewers rattled, especially those not expecting the kind of extreme violence this film presents. With one of the best opening sequences I have seen this year, and a handful of truly shocking moments, the images from Drive will long remain seared in your consciousness. Disappointingly, on this first viewing, I found most of the characterizations lacked the substance required for me to engage with them as much as I would have liked. Also, the film's pacing is very deliberate, and may turn off a few viewers. But these minor flaws are easy to overlook, and I imagine Refn's decisions will be better understood and appreciated on future viewings, because I can confidently claim that there will be fewer films this cool in cinemas this year. 

Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed ‘Driver’, a new-in-town loner who works as a mechanic alongside his employer and closest friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston), and as a skilled stunt driver for Hollywood films. He moonlights as a methodical and no-nonsense getaway driver for hire. We are revealed to his interesting blend of professions through a spectacular opening sequence and introductions to a retired film producer turned corrupt businessman, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), and his volatile associate with ties to the Philly Mafia, Nino (Ron Perlman). Though he keeps mostly to himself and chooses to remain intimately uninvolved, he can’t help but fall for the beautiful Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother who lives on the same floor of his apartment block, and whose husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in prison.

If there is a weakness in this film, it is these early moments with Irene. Their friendship materialises pretty swiftly, doesn’t feel genuinely convincing, and I hate to admit, but I think Carey Mulligan was a misfit for this role. Revealed through a stylishly photographed montage, their friendship involves several chance encounters, little dialogue and plenty of doughy eyes from Mulligan and cheeky grins from Gosling. When Standard returns from prison, Driver’s situation becomes doubly complex. Not only does he lose his time with Irene, but the lives of Standard, Irene and their young son Benicio are threatened by a crime syndicate demanding that Standard repay a protection debt accumulated while in prison. He decides to solve this problem by robbing a pawnshop harboring one million dollars of Philadelphia Mafia money, enlisting Driver as his wheelman. When plans go awry, Driver realizes that there is a contract on him, and must take matters into his own hands to protect not only himself, but those he has come to love.

I got the sense that Drive exists as an homage to an era of 1980's American B-grade cult classics that I am unfamiliar with. I haven’t made ultra-violent action thrillers a signature genre of attention, but as soon as the pink font appeared and I was immersed in the opening scene, I couldn't shake the thought of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The way that Nicholas Winding Refn has transformed contemporary American urban crime drama conventions with pulpy, gratuitous sensibilities, into a slick, stylish, tension-fueled noir thriller with a European art-house aesthetic, is a very impressive achievement.

Through an array of stylistic devices (the expertly lit and framed photography, the flashy editing and the well utilised slow-motion captures) the film ‘looks’ amazing. While I would have liked to see a bit more of Driver in action (because that opening sequence is phenomenal) the central car chase is awesome. The production design, and the way Refn captures Los Angeles from both the air and the ground - as a combination of Bullitt and Blade Runner -  is stellar. While I loved the scoring of the film (an ominous electronic drone which heightened the tension) there were a few soundtrack choices that I initially found a little odd, but have grown to appreciate. 

As for the performances, Gosling is his usual imposing presence. He effortlessly commands the screen (with minimal dialogue) in another powerhouse performance. He has these shy, boyish charms on the exterior and this unhinged brutality and fearlessness lurking beneath the surface. Carey Mulligan, who is as cute as ever, was miscast I thought, but the always reliable Bryan Cranston and an against-type Albert Brooks were both standouts.

Following up Bronson and Valhalla Rising, which can both be criticised for lacking purpose and possessing too much style and very little actual storytelling, Winding Refn has built a gripping tale that entertains, challenges and shocks in equal measure. The film's energy ensures it is one of the most visceral and memorable experiences you will have at a cinema this year, and an example of a bold cinematic endeavour from a man at the peak of his craft. If you have seen the trailer for Drive (and I urge you to watch this film by knowing as little as possible) you may think you know what you’re in for. I say, think again.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A)


  1. This one is high on my "to see" list this year. Your last line has me even more intrigued as I thought I had a good grasp about what this film is about. Regardless, after The Pusher Trilogy, Refn is one of the directors whose works I will go out of my way to see.

    Loving all the MIFF coverage by the way.

  2. I haven't seen The Pusher Trilogy, but I enjoyed Bronson. I was left a little frustrated by Valhalla Rising though. Refn's a talented director and Drive's a 'must see'!

    Thanks CS, I was only in Melbourne for three days, but I saw some of the films that played there earlier in the year at SFF. This is my final review. There were some Melbourne bloggers invited by the MIFF board to undertake a 60 Film watch and blog about 60 films over the course of the 17 days. That is insane. Needless to say, following Drive at the Closing Night After Party, they indulged haha.

  3. Sounds just how I expected it would. I cant wait to see it.

  4. Wow you lucky bastard already got to see it! Sad to hear Carey Mulligan is miscast. I guess we all wondered how she could be married to some guy in prison when watching the trailer eh. Still highly looking forward to it :)

  5. I'm not going to read this - that is until I see it.

    All I can say for now: you're one lucky mate.

  6. @ Bonjour - I look forward to seeing what you think.

    @ Castor - Definitely check it out. There is something off about the Gosling/Mulligan relationship, but it's still a cool film. Definitely check it out.

    @ Duke - I understand! Well I had to fork out a bit to see it...but, no regrets. I think it will be R18+ or NC17+ in the U.S. I hope you get the chance to see it my friend.

  7. @ Castor - I wrote 'definitely check it out' twice. I am so tired! Ugh.

  8. In Wellington tonight, this is getting it's first screening in New Zealand. And I ain't there (mainly because it's like 5 hours drive to see it and you have to be 18 to get in since it's not rated yet). You're so lucky!
    Anyway, I'm kinda sad to hear that Carey was miscast. Mind you, having her star as a young mother and wife of a guy in prison did sound a bit weird. Oh well, Refn's films really interest me (even though I really didn't like Bronson that much). I'm glad you had a good time, though!

  9. Refn is a very inventive filmmaker and the way he frames this film is sublime. It has countless soon-to-be-classic moments, and I think a repeat viewing will prove to be even more rewarding. Yeah, its a shame about Carey (and a few of the other characters actually) because this film (stylistically) is just about perfect. The plot lacks emotional depth, but this is about the only problem I had with it. Another thing: it will probably get an R18+ rating, so you may not be able to see it in cinemas :-(

  10. A rare disagreement between you and I, however so slightly. I don't feel Mulligan was miscast at all; I thought she completely nailed it. I seriously dug everything about this flick. At any rate, great review as always.

  11. I watched this film at a Festival Closing Night during a big weekend. The experience was unforgettable because no one in the cinema was expecting the turn of events and the gasps in shock are ringing in my ears. We walked out and said, "that was awesome, but..." and rattled off a few things that we thought were a little off. We weren't sold on the Gosling/Mulligan relationship, for one. But this is the sort of film I love, and I did, and I'll be watching it again on opening day in Australia, where the minor quibbles I had will be likely eliminated. Thanks Alex. I'll check out yours!

  12. I'm still to completely form an opinion of this movie, but I'm pleased to see that some of the nagging little doubts I had about it have been captured here. I do so like Mulligan's something's-funny-but-I'm-not-telling-you-what-it-is stock expression, but she's way, WAY too classy for this film. Still, Hepburn was too classy for Breakfast at Tiffany's and we all loved that...
    Now, if only I could remember which 80s film used the same font as Drive's. It's driving me mad...

  13. I'm pretty confident I'm going to love the film when I see it the second time around, but there were a few things I felt were off about it. It's likely I just misinterpreted it or didn't receive it as intended. Carey Mulligan, as much as I love her, was one. Can't help you with the font conundrum, sorry!