by Mariusz Zubrowski
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Nicolas Winding Refn, a filmmaker from Copenhagen, Denmark, first attracted attention with the Pusher franchise. Since then, he’s been building on a cult following, progressively releasing larger motion pictures, like Bronson, which stars industry favorite, Tom Hardy. This week, Refn unveils Drive, a masterful thriller sure to introduce the director to the widest audience he’s ever known.
Written by Hossein Amini, the film was adapted from a James Sallis pulp novel of the same name. During the many sun-drenched afternoons in Los Angeles, the film’s nameless protagonist (Ryan Gosling) works as a Hollywood stuntman. However, by moonlight, he doubles as a hired wheelman for a crime syndicate run by Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), and Nino (Ron Perlman).
He doesn’t carry a weapon, requires no background information, and has the ins-and-outs of his 1973 Chevy Malibu down pat, making him a perfect candidate for any potential robbers, including Standard (Oscar Isaac), a fresh out of jail husband hoping to do one last job to spare his wife, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and their son, Benicio (Karden Leos), from thugs looking to collect on unpaid protection money. But when he becomes the victim of an assassination contract, leaving Driver with $1 million, and his family in danger, it’s up to the blue-eyed, blonde-haired road hog to find Standard’s killer.
Remember Clint Eastwood’s performance as the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy? Drive reprises the style of the classic silent but deadly antihero. There are no references to his family, and he has no ulterior motives. Gosling’s character is defined by his actions, which, for the most part, are hardly beneficial to him.
Many audiences may be surprised, even disappointed by the quiet, controlled pace that Refn works under. For the most part, this neo-noir would rather bask in the darkness than erupt into explosions and shouting. This stylistic effort creates an atmosphere where no one can be trusted, and moviegoers can expect that even a friendly handshake can end with someone being killed.
Being a native Dane, it’s no surprise that the director’s influences are European. He brings the idiosyncratic style of impending doom and subdued characters and introduces them to the mainstream. And Refn takes his material seriously; there’s moral and thematic substance to what could’ve been another Hollywood cash-in.
Perlman and Brooks are the ruthless, loudest of the bunch. Nino is a small-time Mafioso, who runs a cover-up operation in a strip mall pizzeria. He doesn’t care for subtly, and unlike Driver, wants to be noticed. He’s explosive, frustrated at his lowly standing, and reluctant to accept his faith. Bernie, however, is conniving, cold, and emits a businessman-like pride.
In the supporting cast, Mulligan lends a good performance as the powerless Irene, who is forced to watch her life spiral out-of-control. The standout here is Bryan Cranston, who stars as Shannon, a mechanic knee-deep into the organization, whose compulsive need for money doesn’t overshadow a love and respect for Driver.
But Gosling commands the screen. Unlike Eastwood, though, who relied much on his tough physical presence, Gosling is a method actor. The actor immerses himself into the role, even studying up on the cars that his character adores. Much like the film itself, the thespian, when covered in blood and relentlessly striking down on his opponents, becomes an elegant horror.
The first step to making films is to have a deep appreciation and understanding for cinema. Refn, however, is an artist that feels comfortable enough to abandon the conventions of filmmaking. In Drive, there is juxtaposition between art and violence. The director skillfully transitions from romance to ruthlessness. Eventually, they intertwine, creating a twisted beauty—or rather, a beautiful nightmare. A medley of synthpop and soulful acapellas adds to the effect and blends well with the blood sport.
What makes Drive a success? First of all, it treats its audience with respect. But more importantly, it adheres to the holy trinity of filmmaking; acting, writing, and direction. Refn, who was handpicked by Gosling, has a firm grasp on each.
Thus, it wouldn’t surprise this film critic if the art house actioner was parked right beside the greats of 2011 at this year’s Academy Awards.
Mariusz Zubrowski is a student at the New York Film Academy. One of the youngest professional critics on the net, he’s only 18 years old and has already written for several online publications. Currently, Mariusz spends his free time running The Corner Society, a webzine that caters to unknown authors.
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