Review: Drive, 2011, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

Drive is cool; there’s no way around it. In point of fact I don’t know if there’s a better way to describe Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film other than in terms of its inherent, blatant coolness, or more accurately a more appropriate way. “Cool” is what Drive embodies in every single detail, minute or otherwise; it’s art which concerns itself utterly with a veneer of detached stylishness, and indisputably that coolness flows through the film’s veins and embeds itself at the base level of its cinematic DNA. But to treat Drive as a textbook case of style over substance is a blunder– an understandable blunder, maybe, but a blunder nonetheless.

“Cool” can be a somewhat nebulous term, of course, but used here it refers to not simply the film’s slick exterior but also to the thematic stuff simmering beneath the hood (if you’ll permit me to employ a car metaphor). Drive, with its car chases and jolting spurts violence, is all about what its characters keep locked away behind the images they project; maybe put more succinctly, it’s about these people all losing their personal cool demeanor. Drive‘s proclivities toward surface coolness belie the film’s very real interest on the substantive; for all of its emphasis on attitude and aesthetic, Drive‘s foremost concern is in its examination of its characters and its depiction of how they all eventually begin to unravel and relinquish their coolness.

Primarily, that study is made upon the Driver (Ryan Gosling), the epitome of cool in a film which itself epitomizes cool. He’s a man of few words (in fact he barely speaks more than a couple dozen lines throughout the entire film), a hip-dressing mechanic with a stolid, collected manner who splits his time during the day working at a garage for Shannon (Bryan Cranston) and performing stunts on movie sets; by night, he serves as a getaway driver for crooks. The Driver runs a tight, regimented ship that’s comprised of rigid provisions, but his discipline makes him the best at what he does, and it’s a modus operandi that seems to translate to all other spheres of his life.

But of course this is a crime noir, and no matter how hard a noir hero tries he can’t help but fall in love with a pretty face. Case in point, the Driver meets Irene (Carey Mulligan) and quickly breaks his habit of denying himself the pleasure of meaningful interaction; we’re already aware of the sort of movie we’re watching, so it’s only natural that his connection to Irene ultimately lands him in a lot of hot water with a couple of mobsters, Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), when he offers to help her ex-con husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) pay off some prison debts by driving him to a job.

Drive is filled with mirrors– no smoke, just reflective surfaces, or more specifically reflective characters– and strives to shatter the projected personae of each of its characters. Considering how assertively the film is defined by its stylishness, Refn never rides on that characteristic to a cool-but-hollow finale; he instead takes a group of characters who can each be defined as categorical archetypes within crime and noir canon and subsequently breaks them down. Bernie and the Driver, for example, are both two sides of the same coin– smooth, composed, adept at playing with their cards close to their chests, but by the end of the film Refn has had them both tear down their images and visit brutal vengeance upon their various enemies. Put simply they give up on playing it cool. By the third act, there’s no room for either of them to do so– they have no other options left.

I think to other directors, “cool” is important because it helps sell and carve out a niche for their movie. For Refn, “cool” matters because in his view anything that’s so indescribably cool as Drive, or Drive‘s characters, is hiding part of itself away from the peering eyes of the world. Clearly Refn sought to mine each of his characters and unveil what each of them has tucked away inside themselves, and it’s that synthesis of compelling stylization and outstanding character work that makes Drive so great. You will not see a film that so meticulously develops its principle and supporting players or is so hypnotically stylish in 2011 as this; it’s the rare sort of picture that’s having its cake and eating it without conveying airs of pretension or a more general contumeliousness in the process.

Refn pours all of that great character work into one of the year’s most sterling casts, with a reinvented Ryan Gosling running at the head of the pack. Gosling oozes cool, but then the entire cast does too– even Albert Brooks. Brooks’ Bernie Rose might even be cooler than Gosling’s Driver in some ways, but that Refn managed to take a comedy writer and a former Mouseketeer and make them both so magnetically cool is a truly impressive feat. Even those who aren’t fond of Gosling (such as myself) won’t be able to deny him here; he’s crafted a timeless character out of visceral, physical expression in the absence of bountiful dialogue, and every raised eyebrow, every smile, every movement serves a purpose. Brooks, by contrast, talks up something of a storm and gives his calculatingly ruthless heavy a warmth that makes his barbarism all the more shocking– especially since he almost never ceases to be congenial, even when he’s fatally slashing someone with a hidden razor.

Meanwhile, Cranston continues the impressive streak he’s been on since Breaking Bad first aired and Perlman digs his teeth into the scenery hamming things up as a wannabe made man. Interestingly, they both want the same thing– respect, or maybe something in life they can call their own– but being two totally different men they take drastically different measures to get what they’re after. Nino’s bid for legitimacy ends up spelling doom for everyone else, Shannon’s doesn’t actually involve hurting anyone. And of course there’s Mulligan, the dame, a more loquacious character than the Driver but still not one for great speeches. Mulligan’s an innocent bystander here, but she and Gosling have an undeniably smoldering, if subtle, chemistry with one another; she plays vulnerable well, but she’s committed to her family and it’s clear that she’s torn between her unspoken attraction to the Driver and her devotion to Standard and their son. Her narrative with Gosling is a beautifully nuanced, impossible sort of love.

It also encapsulates the movie’s most essential moment– a passionate kiss in a dimly lit elevator containing one of Nino’s thugs. In a film where the characters stand behind the walls they’ve built up, the Driver’s willingness to make himself vulnerable quietly speaks volumes. For all of its cinematic heritage and cool action and stylization, Drive most of all is about people stepping out from behind their emotional edifices and presenting themselves bluntly to others. It’s an honest film, it’s a harsh film, it’s a lush and gorgeous film, and maybe it’s Refn’s best film to date.


80 thoughts on “Review: Drive, 2011, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

  1. Pingback: 2011: Retrospective, Honors, & ACVF’s Top 15 (Pt.2) « A Constant Visual Feast

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