Drive (2011)

Fridays always scream “movies” to me, and if nothing at the cinema tempts you enough to brave the talking audiences, crying babies and budget-busting concession stand, why not take a spin with Drive, which was released on Blu-ray/DVD this week (along with the horror prequel The Thing).

But be warned: Although Drive was originally marketed as an action flick, this is not a standard revenge movie, and there is not a lot of “action.” Instead of lots of squealing tires and gunplay, this is a movie filled to overflowing with quiet suspense. Long stretches (entire scenes, even) go by with silent characters watching a wristwatch or brooding, waiting for something to happen. The tension sometimes reaches near-intolerable levels in scenes that drip with an atmosphere of foreboding. But then the movie suddenly erupts into brief paroxysms of brutal, gory violence.

Drive focuses on a Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a wheelman for criminals. He has a strict code of conduct: He won’t carry a gun; won’t take part in the crime; and he won’t wait more than five minutes for the crime to be committed. Driver also works as a mechanic for Shannon (Brian Cranston), who borrows $300,000 from mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) to buy a stock car for Driver to race. Driver gets to know his neighbor, single mother Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose abusive husband, Standard (Oscar Issac, of the underrated Sucker Punch), is just out of prison. Standard owes protection money from his stint in stir, and so Driver agrees to violate his code and get involved in a personal job: helping Standard rob a pawnshop. But the money turns out to belong to the East Coast mob — which is very, very bad news for everybody…

Obviously, Drive is filed with standard action tropes, but director Nicolas Winding Refn inverted them to great effect. Instead of a bunch of car chases (which we’ve seen ad nauseum), the thrills come from waiting for the getaway to begin. The tension builds as the audience wonders if a thief can make it out of a building before the Driver’s deadline. Is Driver as he good as he says he is? Can he ditch police cars and a helicopter?

The ultra violence and gore seem to come out of nowhere because so much of the rest of the film is candy-colored and seemingly placid. But that simmering tension cannot be stretched out forever, and Winding Refn uses it to his advantage. His film feels more real because the violence feels like the sort of without-warning shock that overtakes regular folks. Watch for the elevator scene; it’s a soon-to-be classic.

The movie almost threatens to become a retread of Jason Statham’s The Transporter, but with less stunt driving and driven by a completely different aesthetic. Drive is photographed and scored to echo a MIAMI VICE vibe. The synthesizer music is particularly effective at suggesting another age, as is the hard-boiled criminal dialogue.

Drive’s acting is orders of magnitude better than we usually see in revenge films. The standout is  Brooks — yes, the hilarious actor/writer/director Albert Brooks — as the cold-blooded Bernie. It’s not just that Bernie is capable of sudden brutality; it’s that he is so blasé and filled with resignation about it. He’s cool in a different way from the Driver; Bernie is reptilian with his chillingly low-key approach to being a criminal. He is also not the least bit squeamish about getting his hands dirty — but he is inconvenienced by having to take the time to do it himself. It’s a farce that Brooks wasn’t nominated for an Oscar or SAG award. In fact, his absence calls the credibility of the awards into question.

Gosling does a great job of channeling Steve McQueen as a forceful yet laconic man of few words. Gosling puts a bit of an emo twist on his nameless character, and probably has barely more than a page of dialogue in the entire movie. (And you thought The Artist had a leading man who didn’t say much!) Despite his pretty-boy looks, Gosling does manage to look relatively menacing when he has to be.

Mulligan projects the right kind of vulnerability that her character needs to attract a man like the Driver. She cannot be too weak and clingy, but Mulligan has to play her as a damsel-in-distress in order to warrant his protection. I also liked how Irene didn’t use her child as a crutch. My only complaint: Can Mulligan play anyone who isn’t adorable? I’d love to see her cast as a serial killer or some kind of monster in the Bernie mode, perhaps. (Or, she could go back to DOCTOR WHO and reprise Sally Sparrow!)

But until then, we can enjoy Brooks as Bernie Rose, and Gosling as The Man With No Name who wears a scorpion jacket and can handle himself around a car and bash in skulls with the best of ’em.

Oh, yeah? Sez you!

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