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Rapid Review: Drive

September 18, 2011

Obsession with cars seems to be an addiction of mass complexities for the right sort of person.  Is it the speed, the need for control, or the fascination that comes from pondering how all those internal parts function to create the perfect machine?  Who knows.

The Driver and Irene

The “hero” of Drive (played by Ryan Gosling) is only known as the “Driver”.  He is selectively silent, which fits the nature of his precarious world. In a less-conscious film, you would say this is because he lives a “double life”.  But the Driver only knows one motivation, and it defines him as much as another man might be defined by his wardrobe or his family line.   He is a stunt driver in movies by day, but provides his services as a getaway driver for the criminal underworld at night.  It makes perfect sense, really.  He asks no questions, and in turn puts up with no demands.  He will give you five minutes of  pulse-pounding  precision that will  enable a clean escape.  All the criminals have to do is steal stuff.

Drive‘s director (Nicholas Winding Refn) and British screenwriter Hossein Amini have made a movie that combines the best elements of 30s film noir with the brutal mob sagas of the 1970s.  It’s a stylish and invigorating movie. You can almost feel its insistent pulse humming underneath the baseline of the action.  It’s refreshing to go to an action film and feel genuine anxiety for the characters, even if you know exactly what is going to happen next.

The Driver has a streamlined existence, but (of course) he meets a dame that throws a wrench into the works.  This is perhaps pre-destined.  The dame in question is Irene, and she is played by Carey Mulligan, whose sweet and angelic face (framed in a golden pixie haircut) hides a woman of  equal parts determination and strength, yet also a shocking amount of vulnerability.  She’s raising a young son while his father is serving out the last days of a stint in prison.

Standard (Oscar Isaacs) and the Driver

By  the time the  convict dad, Standard (Oscar Isaac), finally shows up, the Driver is already sucked into Irene’s orbit.   Standard is of course mixed up with all the wrong people; the trail leads back to two powerful men who are way out of his minor minion’s scope of talents.    There is a mistake, then there is fallout from several misguided decisions.  How a person handles the detours life presents them is very telling; in the case of the Driver, we read the solutions and potential outcomes in the very lines and angles of his face.

Ryan Gosling’s deceptively handsome exterior hides a multitude of talents.  Here he is at times mute, at times vulnerable, but always masculine and volatile. The Hollywood machine has had an influence on the Driver; his look and persona are crafted, right down to his signature jacket.  The Driver is an average, blue-collar type of guy, but he has a manic edge.  That street smart side of his nature allows him to be the ultimate survivor.  Still, once he encounters Irene, his sense of fair play and justice conflicts with his natural tendencies.  Gosling gives a stunning performance that seamlessly elevates the film from guilty pleasure status.

The cast is brilliant; there’s not an “off” performance in the bunch.  Albert Brooks, best known for playing sardonic comedy with ease, here deftly reinvent himself as a smooth and low-talking failed movie producer who has had more success as a shady mafioso.  He’s pure genius in the role.

Albert Brooks as Bernie

Bryan Cranston, as the Driver’s mentor and some-time boss, is equally engaging.  Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks also has a role as a shady lady mixed up in a world that is entirely out of her depth.

Visually, Drive is equal parts surface cool and underworld brutality.  The startling violence of many of the scenes is jarring,  but it bounces off the synthesized soundtrack and emotional current of the characters in a strange harmony.

As the Driver races through the streets of L.A. and sets his plans in motion, you begin to live vicariously through him.  Being engaged on such a personal level  is one of the best compliments a reviewer can give to a film.

Drive is a sublime paradox.  It is a movie that belittles an overworked genre, yet surpasses the code of that genre by following the best of  its own rules.  It works, and it works well.

Overall Grade: A

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