The studio has done DRIVE a grave disservice. The film’s trailer leads us to expect a film about fast cars, jam-packed with heart-pounding chase scenes and action. If that’s what you’re looking for, you will be disappointed. Although the central character is a stunt driver, and yes, there are a couple of chase scenes, DRIVE is only disguised as a heist film. Don’t let that comment scare you. DRIVE is direct and unapologetic as cinema can be, presenting the viewer with a rather simple story played out by very complicated characters. As the film progresses, the lines between right and wrong, peace and chaos, truth and illusion and a dozen other antonym pairs twist, cross, and blur. DRIVE is a morality play.
The protagonist known as Driver (Ryan Gosling), who remains unnamed throughout the film, is a part-time movie stunt driver and full-time auto mechanic who occasionally takes a job as a wheel-man in robberies in Los Angeles. He makes it clear that his role in these crimes is simply to drive: he does not carry a gun, he does not participate in any other capacity. He is young, slight of stature, composed and quiet. His boss at the garage, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), has ties to a small-time organized crime outfit, headed by Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Izzy Nino (Ron Perlman). Shannon dreams of fielding a stock car that he will build and Driver will race, and talks Bernie into underwriting the cost of starting up the team. He meets his charming young neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benecio (Kaden Leos) at the neighborhood market, and a slow, charming relationship begins to develop. When Irene’s husband Standard is released from prison a week later, Driver remains friendly with the family, and never oversteps any boundaries. Standard is forced into a robbery to pay back a debt, and in order to protect Irene and Benecio, Driver steps in as get-away driver for the crime. As the robbery and its implications play out, Driver is thrust into chaos. He is, perhaps, the only person with the skills to save the people he has come to care about (Oscar Isaac) and care for. The brilliance of the film is that this crazy situation feels so true. The film is believable.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish filmmaker who is known for his ultra-violent cult-hit Pusher series, presents us with a cast of characters who are just getting by—maybe. There is no glamor in his Los Angeles. The only glitter we see is backstage at a 2-bit strip club. Driver has oil-stained hands, a cheap haircut, and a fraying satin jacket that seems a throwback to a 1950’s bowling club. Irene is pretty, but she seems timid and tired as she slings omelets at the local Denny’s to support her son. Nino’s pizza parlor is so filthy that you can smell the film of grease on the tables; and after suffering a beating, mob-moll Blanche (Christina Hendricks) reapplies her lipstick before washing her face. This movie is dirty.
Driver serves as No Man and Every Man. Not only is he anonymous, his jobs are anonymous as well. The symbolism here is clear: he is torn between a societal standard of Irene and Benicio (whose names mean Peace and Blessed) and the Rose crime family –a rose being the traditional mob symbol of being marked for death. This pure distillation of fundamental choice forces the audience to decide for themselves if violence is evil. And boy oh boy, is this a violent film. We’ve become a bit blasé about film violence in recent times. Staged wounds are just theatrical enough for us to be reminded that it’s “just a movie.” Not so in DRIVE’s case. Two scenes made my stomach take a slow-roll. But in considering Refn’s decision for such graphic scenes, I realized that anything less would not serve the story well. DRIVE is a movie of extremes.
DRIVE is beautifully crafted, with a spare script and a fine cast. With very few lines in the film, Gosling lifts acting to its highest form, conveying more in a glance or a body movement than many actors manage in pages of dialog. Who knew Albert Brooks could be so effective as a heavy? Ron Perlman shines as a foul-mouthed mobster desperate to hit the big time, and Bryan Cranston is pitiable without being pathetic as Driver’s crippled, conniving boss. In some films, the setting can become a character. In DRIVE’s case, it’s the city lights that seem alive, reflecting across the rather ordinary faces of case, rendering them beautiful and ethereal. None of the special effects in DRIVE are computer-generated—the slickness of computer-rendered graphics would not be fitting here. The soundtrack is a weak point, and an overly-long and oddly loud “Oh My Love” by Riz Ortolani featuring Katyna Ranieri cheapens one of the most powerful sequences of the film.
DRIVE is the best surprise I’ve had in the movie theater in a long, long time. If you can tolerate some very graphic violence, consider it a must-see this fall. And expect to see Ryan Gosling nominated for his powerful performance as that kid that just drives. I give this 4 1/2 out of 5 stars. — Joan Radell for FilmEdge.net