Monday, September 26, 2011

Drive (2011)

Maybe it's because every film professor I've ever had idolizes Roman Polanski, but Drive reminded me a lot of Chinatown. That's an interesting and perhaps controversial lead-off, but think about it: both are stylish neo-noirs that pay homage to the genre while also twisting them, coming from directors who are outsiders both in the sense of being foreign-born and in coming from outside mainstream Hollywood, and both feature a Los Angeles setting. The most significant similarity, though is how each film approaches the noir genre from the perspective of the time it was made: Chinatown toyed with the idea that nothing can possibly be known for certain, while Drive supposes that no one is truly innocent.

A young, unnamed driver (Ryan Gosling) works several jobs. One is as a mechanic, where he works at a body shop for Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Another is as a Hollywood stunt-driver. And another is as a getaway-driver-for-hire. Just as Shannon  is striking up a racing business with merciless mobster Bernie (Albert Brooks), the driver gets involved with his neighbor, angel-faced Irene (Carey Mulligan), who's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is just getting release from prison. When a job with Standard goes awry, the driver finds himself in the middle of a plot that goes much deeper than anyone expected.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn won the Best Director prize at Cannes this year for this film, and it's easy to see why: he has a striking, lyrical style that is mesmerizing. Most importantly, though, he understands the basic rule of cinema, which is show, not tell. There's very little explicit exposition here; we learn from the very first scene everything we need to know about the driver's after-hours gig with barely any spoken dialogue. Instead, the film relies on its audience to be smart enough to follow along without any hand-holding, something that has probably contributed to it's lackluster box office performance. Of course, some of that credit goes to screenwriter Hossein Amini, but much of it belongs to Refn's masterful visual storytelling and concept of the story. Can you imagine what the film would have been with original director Neil Marshall (The Descent)?

Or, while we're at it, with original star Hugh Jackman in the lead role? Though he has very little dialogue (he's the strong, silent type, the driver is), Gosling gives a phenomenal performance, making every violent outburst even more shocking and emphatic. Cranston is a wily one, easily sleezy without ever becoming unlikable. Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman don't have much screentime, but they pack a powerful punch in their few scenes. And Mulligan is surprisingly great as the inadvertent femme fatlate, a role that she wears with remarkable comfort. Brooks ends up stealing the show, though, brilliantly cast against-type and proving just what a dynamic and superb dramatic actor he is. His Bernie should start making lists of great movie gangsters soon.

There's no doubt that this is a polarizing film. I'd hesitate to call it excessively violent, since there isn't non-stop physical violence throughout the movie as there is in 99% of thrillers made today. But those moments of violence are powerful and brutal, making an impact every single time. Drive moves through it's narrative at a contemplative pace (I've read it called "existential," which is pretty accurate) rather than cut-cut-cut-cut-cut, as the Bourne movies have made popular. As my friend Nathaniel wrote (and I completely agree with), this film is going to have a passionate cult following 10 years from now, when people get a chance to really discover it. It's a one-of-a-kind film that really stays with you, and should be regarded as a classic in the years to come. A+

*Oscar watch: I predicted this as a Best Picture contender, and I still think it can pull a big enough following to sneak in. However, I wonder if Refn, though thoroughly deserving, really can make it into the director's race. Other than those two, Brooks looks like a safe bet for Supporting Actor, and not nominating Matthew Newman for editing or Newton Thomas Sigel for cinematography would be an egregious mistake on the Academy's behalf.

**Also, I urge everyone to go out and buy the soundtrack. Utter brilliance.

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