Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Movie Review: Drive

Drive ****
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written by: Hossein Amini based on the book by James Sallis.
Starring: Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Ron Perlman (Nino), Kaden Leos (Benicio).

There is a scene near the end of Drive which is, quite simply put, the best scene I’ve seen in any movie this year. Ryan Gosling’s near silent driver gets onto an elevator with Irene (Cary Mulligan), because he knows the other man in there is going to try and kill them both. In a wordless, effortlessly fluid scene, Gosling moves Mulligan behind him, and as an ‘80s pop song plays, turns around and gives one of the most memorable kisses in recent memory. He then beats the other man in the elevator to a pulp – leaving him a dead, bloody, mess on the floor, and as the elevator door closes – with Irene now on the outside, the two share a wounded, sad look of disappointment, longing and regret. Without a single line of dialogue, this is a scene that will haunt me for years.

But it is just one of many great scenes in Drive, the new films by Nicolas Winding Refn, which very justly won him the Best Director prize at this years Cannes Film Festival. I wasn’t a fan of Winding Refn’s last film, Valhalla Rising, which was also bloody, but ponderous, slow and confusing, even as it was visually astonishing. Here, working with a screenplay by Hossein Amini, and a great cast, he has created one of the best crime movies in recent years.

Ryan Gosling is superb as The Driver – a man of few words, and seemingly few emotions. Many critics have drawn comparisons to his character here with actors like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen – and the comparison is apt. Gosling’s Driver is an existensial hero, a man whose meaning is based solely on his actions, because he never gives you a hint as to what he is really thinking or feeling. Far from being a boring or flawed performance, it is actually rather thrilling to see Gosling, who can be so good with dialogue, sit back and let everyone around him talk and talk and talk. The Driver doesn’t talk much. He drives – whether it’s on the racetrack, doing stunts for the movies, or being a getaway driver for criminals, he is the best there is. He lives a solitary life, basically just interacting with his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who unlike Driver, cannot shut up. But then he meets his new neightbor – Irene, and her young son Benicio. Her husband is in jail, and he takes a shine to this small family, so beaten down by the husband’s absence. When he does get out of jail, he owes money to some bad people – who tell him that he can pay it off by robbing a pawn shop. But he needs a driver, so guess who volunteers?

The robbery, of course, is not what it seems. People end up dead, and instead of the $40,000 they expected, it turns out that they have $1 million. This isn’t good. Shannon makes inquires as to who the money belongs to – and it’s Nino (Ron Perelman), a violent gangster, who is partners with Bernie (Albert Brooks). They need the money back – and soon – or they’ll wind up dead.

The plot is pretty standard for a crime film. And yet the handling of the plot is anything but standard. The film is highly stylized from its opening sequence – a thrilling “car chase” sequence that really isn’t a car chase at all, but an expertly choreographed dance sequence using Gosling and his car as the dancer. The movie is stylized, but this isn’t an example of style trumping substance, but rather and example of style matching substance. The movie is flashy and violent from beginning to end, but also rather thrillingly romantic and grandiose. I loved every second of it.

The cast is perfect as well. Gosling is the still center of the movie, who lets the crazies around him go wild. Bryan Cranston is excellent as his sleazy buddy and Ron Perelman good as the heavy. Carey Mulligan exudes wounded beauty with the best of them as the girl he loves. And the casting of Albert Brooks was nothing short of genius. I’ve always thought of Brooks as an actor like Woody Allen – only capable of playing the same role in every film. But here, although some of his speeches are as hilarious as something he has written himself, he is also downright scary. His intensity builds as the movie goes along – at first being little more than the Albert Brooks we know and love, and then turning into some sort of monster. It is a brilliant performance – one that should land Brooks an Oscar nomination.

Drive is without question one of the best movies of the year. Expertly written and acted, and amazingly well directed by a filmmaking who I thought had the talent to pull something like this off for a few years now. A truly great film.

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