Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Now Playing - Drive

Being an avid cinema goer and someone who chose to get an education in film, I think it's fair to say that I've developed some fairly discerning tastes in regard to the medium. This can, at times, be somewhat of a curse. Sure, I probably enjoy a majority of the films I see, but not a lot really knocks me off my feet. That being said, there is an upside to being a film snob; when something comes along that is truly great and I mean truly great, the feeling of intense satisfaction that follows is like electricity. I saw Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive yesterday evening and I'm still feeling the residual effects of its greatness.

Such glowing reviews are difficult to write. I find that the films I love are the ones I have the hardest times describing off the bat. My enjoyment of most viewing experiences is often interrupted by the movies themselves - their plot holes, inconsistencies, poor performances, exposition etc.. Critical minds are trained to be alert, but I've found that the best films don't trigger it nearly as much as bad ones. I was so thoroughly engrossed with and invested in Drive - from the opening frames to the closing credits - that I didn't really think all that much on it. A day later and I'm still just so pleased with my experience that I have only now started to really think about the specifics (and will likely continue to for some time after I'm done writing this review).

Praise in these cases can be difficult, especially when considering the limitations of words to truly capture what the art of film presents. I so badly want to see Drive a second time, so I can understand my feelings toward it a little better, but I'll try to work a few things out as I write.

Here's the brief synopsis: A Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong.  

Drive is a lot about style and a lot about character. The film opens up with some great 80's-esque music and pink font. Despite not taking place in that era, the film continues to use music of that sort done by various contemporary artists, while reinforcing the not-so-period aesthetic with dated details - such as Gosling's trademark gold scorpion jacket.

Gosling has said in previous interviews that Drive is his superhero film and it's easy to see why. The jacket and, to some extent, the track "A Real Hero" by College serve as themes for the unnamed protagonist (in the credits he's referred to simply as 'Driver'). Despite being almost frustratingly quiet and reserved, Driver is almost never without his ostentatious jacket, which continues to accumulate blood, dirt and wear as the film progresses. We know very little about the character, except for some momentary and vague exposition by Shannon, his boss, played by Bryan Cranston.

The Driver is something of an archetype in the fashion of Eastwood's "Man With No Name" character. He has a trademark outfit, speaks very little and most importantly is a master of violence. But, in this case, that aspect is somewhat more unexplainable. As far as we know, the Driver isn't some experiment a la Bourne Identity, or an experienced fighter/violent criminal (as far as we know). He's a blank slate. The film is less about who he is than his actions and his motivations for them. Yes, the film's title is an obvious reference to his profession as a stunt/getaway driver, but a lot of Drive is about the character's own drive.

The catalyst for his motivations begins with meeting his neighbors, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio. The development of his relationship with them is reserved, never hyperbolic or blistering with passion, but it's sweet and it becomes very apparent that he cares deeply for both of them without a whole lot of sex and emotion. The heist that goes bad isn't something he will profit off of, it's being done to help the recently-released husband/father out with some debts he owes. Driver is concerned that the thugs will come after Irene and Benicio, so he agrees to do the job.

When everything goes wrong, he is left to tie up loose ends that could somehow end up at Irene's door. Rarely does he wield a gun in these altercations, which results in some severe brutality on his behalf by way of more creative methods.

One scene in particular that struck me is when he and Irene share an elevator with a hit man of sorts. This is the stage of their only on-screen embrace, which is followed by the brutal beating and skull crushing of the hit man. The kiss almost seems like a 'goodbye', not because he is afraid the other man might get the best of him, but because his necessary violent actions might irrevocably alter her opinion of him. Despite this, despite the fact that it might tarnish his image in her eyes, he does what needs to be done to keep her safe. As he stands over the fallen man, now without a head at all, he turns to Irene, who has left the elevator - her face is blank and she is horrified - and the door closes between them. (Fun fact: Refn was advised by Gaspar Noe on the skull crushing. Noe's brutal 2002 film Irreversible features a rather infamous skull caving scene).

Such is the nature of many of Drive's scenes; one might be short or at least is the action within, but volumes could be written on their details, nuances implications.

It's no surprise that Gosling is great in this because the man is a brilliant actor, but his performance still further solidifies this image. Unlike last years passionate, fiery performance in Blue Valentine, Gosling is here a man with little emotion, but with rage and fury boiling beneath the surface, made only apparent by fist-clenching and intense silence. Since he was criminally overlooked for an Oscar nomination last year, I would love for him to get one here as it is more than deserved.

As for the film's other players: Mulligan is cuter and more likeable than I've found her in anything else. Irene is herself a somewhat reserved character, which required her to convey her emotions physically, which she's done quite well. Ron Perlman is a joy (as usual) in his role as an obnoxious wannabe (though still dangerous) mobster. His associate, the even more dangerous Bernie Rose, is excellently portrayed by the perfectly cast Albert Brooks. Bernie is intimidating and mean (he's the second most violent man in the movie), but he doesn't revel in his villainous actions, in fact he seems to approach them reluctantly - as unfortunate acts of necessity.

Wrapping up - it's rare when I find a film that resonates so completely with what I want to see in the medium. To me, Drive is a near-perfect film; so good it makes me want to cry. It's the best film of the year so far (and I have a hard time imagining that any will be better). Going even further - Drive undoubtedly belongs in the company of this century's most powerful films.


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