Drive is the spiritual grandchild of film noir movies such as Dead Reckoning, Out of the Past, and Detour. You have the classic situation of the alienated protagonist who provides the viewpoint for the audience. Only three or four scenes in Drive aren’t viewed through his eyes. The alienation is highlighted by his having no name. In the credits, he’s simply known as Driver.
If classic noir is this movie’s grandfather, its father is Michael Mann and his cool neon eye. In his first feature, Thief, and on through Heat and Collateral, Mann has created stylish crime films, looking into the shadows that were left dark in the older movies. But Drive also evidences the European branch of the family – films like Pusher and the Red Riding trilogy, with a high level of violence that explodes without warning.
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Drive opens with Driver (Ryan Gosling) working his magic for two thieves after a heist. “You have me for five minutes,” he tells them, as he does all his crime clients. He’ll wait outside for that time, but if you’re not in the car before time’s up, you’re on your own. “I don’t carry a gun, I don’t want in on the plans; I just drive.” When the police respond to the break in, Driver plays cat-and-mouse with the responding units and a police helicopter before getting the thieves to the perfect cover for their escape. The scene is an intense blend of adrenalin and tension.
Driver works as a mechanic in the San Fernando Valley garage owned by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who also manages him as a part-time stunt driver for the movies. Even though he’s exploiting Driver’s talents, which he cheerfully admits, he is the closest friend Driver has. Shannon sees with Driver’s ability they could clean up on the stock car circuit, then make the jump to NASCAR. For financing he turns to Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a former movie producer who changed into producing crime, partnered with wise guy Nino (Ron Perlman).
Driver’s recently moved to an older apartment building in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. There he observes Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), who’s apartment is down the hall from his. It’s only when Irene’s car breaks down that he makes contact. Driver is drawn into their family, slipping into a fatherly role with Benicio and a close but chaste relationship with Irene.
Benicio’s father Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns after being released from prison and Driver separates himself from Irene. But Standard has brought trouble with him, a debt he must pay by carrying out a heist. When the thug squeezing Standard threatens to harm Irene and Benicio, Driver steps in. He offers to help with the heist on the condition that Standard’s debt is wiped clean and no harm will come to Irene and Benicio. The heist goes horribly wrong, and Driver finds himself targeted for death.
Gosling is mesmerizing in his surface restraint that hides the rage underneath, like a young Marlon Brando. There’s an element of the knight errant in Driver, with his willingness to fight for honor even when it’s not his own. With Crazy, Stupid Love released a few months ago and the upcoming George Clooney political drama The Ides of March, Gosling has hit a trifecta this year.
An archetype of the noir genre is the femme fatale. In Drive you have two versions. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) plays the standard version as Blanche, a gorgeous woman recruited to help Standard pull off the heist, though she knows more than she lets on. The role of Irene is the polar opposite, a vision of light and innocence in a dark, corrupt world. Yet that purity can be just as lethal. Carey Mulligan inhabits the role beautifully. You easily understand why Driver would risk everything to save her.
Bryan Cranston has also had a busy year. He was criminally underused in the one-dimensional role of Julia Roberts’ husband in Larry Crowne, but recovered to lend gravitas to the role of the head of Homeland Security in Contagion. His role here as Shannon is a small jewel: the physically-scarred small time hustler dreaming of finally making it big, riding along with Driver.
Nico is the unpolished mobster, and Ron Perlman provides that physicality with interest. In the role of Bernie, Albert Brooks is a revelation. Those who think of him as the sweating newsman in Broadcast News or the white-collar criminal in Out of Sight will be stunned by the cobra-like menace he brings to his role. Bernie shows what it means to shake hands with the Devil.
The movie was directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, whose films like the Pusher trilogy have usually been set in Copenhagen. He makes the move to Los Angeles seamlessly, capturing the city beautifully both by day and by night. In the past, Refn has written his movies as well, but here the screenplay is done by Hossein Amini, who had previously done The Wings of the Dove and the 2002 redo of the ‘30’s classic The Four Feathers.
In a movie featuring a character who is a stunt driver, you would expect the car chases to be top notch. Drive doesn’t disappoint. They are some of the best driving sequences since Ronin and the Bourne trilogy.
I don’t recommend Drive for the faint of heart. I’ve used versions of “violent” several times in this review on purpose. But if you are a fan of crime fiction and noir, you need to see this movie.