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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Sep. 15, 2011 | 6:35 PM

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Ever since it’s gala premiere at the L.A. Film Fest last June, the hype has been building about Nicolas Winding Refn’s action fairy tale, Drive.  Wearing a wide range of influences on its sleeve, the film offers a Scorsese style loner, a stylized portrait of L.A. which recalls Michael Mann, and a love story cut with violence which calls to mind both David Lynch and Gaspar Noe.  Fortunately for us, Refn has the skill to incorporate these elements and add more than a few tricks of his own.

The film begins with a tantalizing premise: a nameless talented stunt driver for the movies (Ryan Gosling, never better), takes it to the next level in his spare time by offering his services as a getaway driver for real life heists.  Since this kind of work is presumably lucrative, but sporadic, the film also gives the Driver a less glamorous job as a part time auto mechanic.  In order to fully enjoy Drive, the viewer must submit to Refn’s somewhat arbitrary construction of the criminal underworld.  Albert Brooks is a former movie producer turned gangster, and his partner Ron Perlman runs a pizzeria in the valley while complaining about his treatment by some nebulous East Coast crime “family.”

None of this matters much, as we’re supposed to be focused on the Driver’s slow and steady courtship of his next door neighbor, Irene (played with typical grace by Carey Mulligan).  When Irene’s husband returns from prison and tries to go straight, things get complicated, and the Driver finds himself in deep waters while trying to win the heart of his fair lady and her doting young son.

One would hope that a film called Drive would deliver some excellent car chase sequences, and Refn doesn’t disappoint. The opening heist, in which Gosling eludes substantial police pursuit by blending in with the crowd pouring out of Staples Center, is thrilling to behold.  In any movie car chase, we should be able to applaud both the driver’s raw skill and his final escape, and Gosling succeeds in sucking us in on both counts.  Even better is the sequence where the Driver sets out as the pursuer himself, chasing Perlman to a spectacularly creepy meeting with his maker as the waves crash onto a moonlit beach.  Both of these scenes manage to simultaneously subvert our expectations while delivering visceral thrills, and Refn choreographs them flawlessly.

These moments alone would make Drive well worth the viewing; but it rises even higher on the strength of its cast.  The world has waited far too long for a film in which we get to watch Albert Brooks do despicable things, and Brooks clearly relishes every minute of it.  Casting against type doesn’t always work, but anyone who’s read Brooks’ recent novel 2030 has already realized the man has a dark side.  Brooks proves himself a worthy adversary for Gosling, who anchors the film with a performance which redefines the strong, silent type.  His Driver is a man of few words, whose often extreme actions speak volumes.  Perlman and Bryan Cranston, as a shady, crippled auto mechanic who takes Gosling under his wing, also do excellent character work. 

Early in the film, as part of a scheme to make money off of the Driver on the Stock Car circuit, Brooks tries to convince Perlman that the money they’ve invested in what looks like an old wreck of a racer will pay off.  “It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” Brooks says.  Unfortunately, a closer look under the hood occasionally reveals DRIVE to offer little more than shiny exteriors.  To begin with, it’s a shame to see an actress of Mulligan’s caliber stuck in such a paper thin role.  While we’re supposed to be convinced that the mere idea of her is enough to make the Driver risk life and limb, she disappears for much of the film’s final third. 

Refl’s stylistic conceits also begin to wear thin after a while.  While at first the juxtaposition of graphic violence with a fairy tale type love story feels shocking and new, Refl repeats the technique so often it begins to feel that the violence is being used in lieu of more substantial story ideas.  The director also overplays his hand in his use of soundtrack music in the film.  The Cliff Martinez score is effective, but Refn pounds the viewer over the head with “A Real Hero”, a piece of pop electronica that’s eerie at first, but soon becomes distracting.

At its best, Drive is still one of the most audacious and entertaining indie films to emerge in years. Making optimum use of its Los Angeles setting, the film’s locations are as diverse as the city itself, from Echo Park to coastal highways to pawn shops in the valley.  Refl’s film makes an occasional wrong turn, but it’s one hell of a ride: a stirring dark valentine to a city stuck behind the wheel.

Drive opens Friday, September 16th at theatres citywide.


First Comment:

  1. I saw “Drive” twice. Really well made.

    Posted by Rodfromvegas on 10/03 at 07:09 PM