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From the DVD Shelf: Drive (2011)

I missed Drive when it was released in 2011, but I was intrigued by everything I read about it and it’s a film that I’ve been hoping for some time to catch up to.

Ryan Gosling plays the enigmatic driver at the center of the film.  (His character is never named in the movie, something that is done so subtly that I never even realized we didn’t know his character’s name until I was sitting down to write this piece.)  In the film’s dynamic opening sequence, we learn that he is a highly-skilled getaway driver, with incredible abilities behind the wheel and a tight set of rules over what he is willing to do and not do when getting involved with various other criminals and their plans.

The driver has apparently led a very solitary life, focused on his work (both legal — as a mechanic and stunt-car driver for the movies — and illegal), but all that changes when sparks fly with his new neighbor, a pretty, wounded mother (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison.  The driver forms a nice bond with this woman, Irene, and her son Benicio.  Then Irene’s husband comes home from prison, and the driver gets involved in a criminal deal that goes from bad to worse.  None of the characters emerge unscathed (physically/emotionally) from the downward spiral of events that follows.

Drive is a movie that you will watch with a tight knot in your stomach.  Right from the beginning, it was quite clear to me that this wasn’t going to be a movie with a happy ending.  I found myself liking both the driver and Irene, and it was torture watching the events unfold, knowing, just knowing, that none of this was going to end well.  That’s a mark of what a skillfully made film this is.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn is masterful at slowly, ever-so-slowly, ratcheting up the tension and tightening the noose.  It’s also fair warning that this is not a film for everyone.  Drive is tough to watch at times.

The film has a sexy/sleezy/cool vibe that I found very intriguing.  It felt reminiscent to me of the tone of some eighties thrillers, particularly the work of Brian De Palma.  Mr. Refn doesn’t utilize any of the Hitchcockian stylistic devices that Mr. De Palma is so well-known for.  No, what I’m talking about is more a matter of tone.  Drive presents us with a world (and a main character) that is at once very cool, and very ugly.  So many of the films of Mr. De Palma walked that same line.  Take the opening credits of Drive — with that throaty ballad playing loud on the soundtrack, and the bright purple script font used for the main credits — am I the only one who sees a throwback to eighties De Palma??  Even if I am, I loved it.  (And by the way, long-time readers of the site, I know that I have dropped the ball on completing my “Days of De Palma” look-back at all the films of Mr. De Palma’s.  Rest assured this has never been far from my mind, and I have plans to return to that series of articles soon.  Stay tuned.)

Ryan Gosling is a tremendously handsome man, and he has displayed thousand-watt charisma on-screen.  But here in Drive he turns his eyes dead.  The driver always has a somewhat vacant look on his face, as if he’s hardly paying attention, as if he’s not really there in the moment, as if he is just sort of floating through the universe that everyone else inhabits.  But we can also see that this man is a tightly coiled spring, and when those moments come when the driver springs into action (usually behind the wheel of a vehicle), they are terrifying and compelling all a once.  This is a terrific performance, super-cool and also enigmaticly closed-off.

Bryan Cranston is great as the driver’s pal/mentor Shannon, a fast-talking mechanic who is clearly disreputable but also somehow lovable and even vulnerable.  I liked Shannon from the first moment I saw him onscreen, and though he was a crook I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him.  Mr. Cranston is superb at playing all the shades of this character.  Shannon is, in a way, using the driver for his own ends, but he has also clearly been a genuine mentor and protector to the driver.

Shannon is connected to two crime-lord business partners, Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman).  Oh my goodness are both of these performers perfect in their roles.  I would kill to someday see a spin-off film, just starring Bernie and Nino!  Let’s start with Albert Brooks, who is phenomenal in this rare turn as a villain.  He’s funny, and Bernie certainly displays certain Albert Brooksian qualities — a fast-talking, jokey manner, with a shade of nebbishness.  But we can always see something else — a certain danger — lurking just under the surface.  I never knew Albert Brooks could play a role like this, and man did he kill it. His partner, Nino, doesn’t have much under the surface — his danger is all right there for all to see.  Mr. Perlman is much more familiar than Albert Brooks in the role of the villain, but I often feel he has been poorly used in so many of his movies, where he is so often just given a one-dimensional heavy to play.  Nino is a much better-written role, and it’s great fun to see how Mr. Perlman eats up every morsel of opportunity this role presents.  He’s amazing, a live-wire bull-in-a-china-shop thug who seems to fill up the screen whenever he is on camera.

Carey Mulligan does great work with perhaps the film’s most challenging role.  Ms. Mulligan plays innocent and vulnerable extremely well.  But she makes Irene a tough, fully-realized character and not just an object of our hero’s affections or a damsel in distress.  Ms. Mulligan doesn’t have a huge amount of dialogue in the film.  She does a lot of work with looks and gestures.  Ms. Mulligan makes it look effortless, but clearly it was not.

I watched Drive, literally, from the edge of my couch, leaning forward with tension and interest, absolutely gripped by the film.  (This was a hard movie to sit back and eat popcorn to!)  It’s an extraordinarily well-crafted crime film, dark and dangerous.  Not exactly a fun movie to watch, but it thrilled me nonetheless.

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