Thursday, 1 December 2011

Film Review: Drive

By day he is a Hollywood stuntman, by night a getaway driver cruising the streets of LA for realz. Our stoic hero, a monosyllabic loner with nerves of tempered steel remains nameless apart from his function. He drives. That's all he does. But he's the best. When our 'Driver' (Gosling) falls for winsomely appealing Irene (Mulligan), her husband's involvement with vicious gangsters prompts him to become errantly involved in an increasingly dangerous mob conflict.

The plot is about as conventional as you can get, but that's not why Drive is great. It's stylish visuals and retro-80s feel coupled with a fantastic script and performances are what makes this a winner. What's more amazing about Drive though is how precariously it sits on the edge of failure. Had it been any director other than Nicolas Winding Refn then this could so easily have fallen flat on its otherwise engaging exploitation of garish tropes. Gosling, who also produced the film, made a sound decision in bringing the Danish director on board which was clearly exemplified by his Best Director Award at Cannes this year. Certainly, this is one of those few films where style triumphs over substance, no more immediately evident than in its opening scene. 'Driver' performs a seemingly impossible getaway for a couple of armed robbers, effortlessly evading police without so much as breaking a sweat. It is truly one of the most thrillingly intense scenes put to film this year and proves to be absolutely hypnotic. Cutting to opening credits we are engulfed by Drive's second greatest asset, an invigorating 80s synth tribute which plays us in as pulsating pink neon font resembling that in 80s classic, Cocktail, overlay incredible panoramic shots of LA. Drive is certainly one stylish film.

It is Gosling however who proves to be the star attraction, whose role could easily have been filled by any one of the generic macho brutes Hollywood has to offer. But this would have been the wrong option, a choice which almost certainly would have plunged Drive into inanity. Fortunately Gosling is perfectly cast, his Ohio-farm boy good looks serving to accentuate the tension of what's going on underneath the surface. Wary and softly spoken, Gosling remains an enigma throughout the film which works in tandem with his almost vacant expression as his awkward, superficial attempts to interact with people scream a sense of alienation. There's also a very noble quality to 'Driver', as well as a romantic side. When he meets neighbour Irene the two begin hanging out, her son immediately warming to him as he takes them on a day trip to a river bank while the soundtrack informs us that "he's a hero, a real human being". Despite 'Driver' barely able to string two words together, Irene develops a crush and the two begin exchanging the most tender of looks and half-smiles. Even when Irene's husband is released from prison our 'Driver' doesn't just accept him but becomes his protector too, getting involved in a gang-dispute which has nothing to do with him.

And yet, this seemingly gentle man is anything but as he shifts from being very calm, quiet and deliberate in his actions to moments of explosive violence in a play between indolence and swiftness. Revealed to be harbouring a savage passenger, Dexter fans will no doubt love this. Here we have a man seemingly determined to protect the innocent while struggling against an appetite for salacious violence. The most stark juxtaposition between the 'Driver's' two sides comes when he passionately kisses Irene in a lift before immediately descending into a brutal attack on an assassin while she looks on in abject horror. Indeed, Drive's graphic violence has proved to be a talking point among critics, described as "shocking" and "grotesque" by many. Admittedly it's not as frequent as some analysis might have you believe, but what is shown is particularly pitiless. From fisticuffs to razor blades and hammers, Drive will undoubtedly make you wince. However, if we analyse Drive's most gruesome portrayal of brutality, a scene where 'Driver' mercilessly stomps on a villain's head, what we really see is more imagined through the conveyance of sound rather than any particular imagery. Yes, Drive is bloody, but then it doesn't really show anything you probably haven't seen before.

The supporting cast are also excellent, although perhaps a slight disappointment is how understated Carey Mulligan is. However, what she does do is more than convincing and with an added charm which makes her annoyingly likeable. The brilliant Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad is Shannon, acting as something of father figure to 'Driver'. While there is no doubt that he genuinely seems to care for the kid, the down on his luck mentor is also keen to exploit him by getting him to race. However he first needs money to build a car, in which he turns to two gangsters for funds. Albert Brooks plays Bernie Rose, a former movie director and seemingly genial, reasonable man before his sadist traits are inevitably revealed. His partner, the more uncouth and belligerent Nino (Perlman) is equally frightening in his unpredictable eruptions of violence.

Drive is a neo-noir movie romanticised with a prodigiously well-realised 80s pastiche. Its main appeal comes from its uncanny ability to capture that 80s cocaine zest and dauntlessly transplant it into the current day. Likewise Gosling's performance is mesmerising, no mean feat given that any other actor would probably have tipped Drive into the realms of absurdity. This is myth creation at its finest. When we arrive at our destination we have more questions than answers. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why is he like that? What was the moral of it all? And regardless of this burning desire for answers, you will just be glad you went along for the ride.