DRIVE. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Oscar Isaac. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Rated MA 15 +. Restricted. (Strong bloody violence). 100 min.
Danish filmmaker, Nicolas Winding Refn won the award for Best Direction at the 2011 Cannes film festival for this movie, which tells the story of a stunt driver by day, and a “wheelman” by night, who drives a get-away car for the criminal underworld. The movie is set in Los Angeles, and Ryan Gosling plays the part of The Driver. His character does not have a name. His driving, however, makes him someone very special, and he can do anything behind the wheels of his Chevy Impala car. As The Driver, Gosling is a lonely figure with no background, but respected for his cool-headedness, driving skill, and stoic resolve in the face of danger. He drives get-away cars like nobody else, and when things cross him he is adept at treating people he dislikes in an unfortunate way.
Carey Mulligan plays the part of a woman who lives, with her son, down the hall in The Driver’s apartment building. She and The Driver strike up a relationship, while Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in prison. When Standard comes out of prison, he asks The Driver to help him in what he has arranged to pay his debt. The Driver wants to protect Irene and her son, and so he agrees to help him. On the job, things go terribly wrong, and chaos, with escalating violence, results.
The first half of the movie is spent building the relationship between Irene and The Driver, and it shows many tender moments that set the stage for the heavy drama that follows. After the heist, in which Standard gets killed, the film descends into relentless aggression. It is a movie, though, that brilliantly lives on the edge of dramatic possibilities. We can guess what will happen, but events unfold in a cold, precise, tense, and anticipatory way. Without a doubt the director of this movie, Nicolas Refn, has earned his award, and for some that is a controversial opinion.
The movie doesn’t reveal a great deal about the character of The Driver. Encapsulating him in solitude, it cloaks any revelations about why he does what he does. It is an extraordinarily well-controlled film, with an ambiguous ending which continues the dramatic possibilities intelligently, without providing total closure on them. Throughout the movie, the dialogue is amazingly sparse. Aggression for the most part does the talking, and many conversations are accompanied by bloody events. Very much in the format of “cinema noir” the film captures its dark style expertly, and it is filled with action that nearly always turns out badly. The photography is excellent, every shot has a purpose, and the 80’s music soundtrack backs up what one sees with pulsing intensity.
The acting of everyone in the movie is excellent. Gosling's performance is a compelling mixture of detachment, solitude, and insanity. His performance as The Driver is probably his most definitive character portrayal to date, and his acting is as far away as one can get from his role as the talkative, sexy womanizer in “Crazy, Stupid, Love”. A number of minor characters give the movie extra impact. They include a nervous loser as a boss (Bryan Cranston), who meets an unjust end, and a particularly sinister mobster (Albert Brooks), who achieves a special moment of violence when he suddenly stabs his victim in the eye with a fork.
With its rawness and intensity, this is not a movie for the faint-hearted, and the film’s direction is extremely hard-edged. Originality for Nicolas Refn goes hand in hand with intention to shock.
Faced with deciding whether, or not, the film is “gorily unpleasant but creative in style”, or “at the cutting-edge of realism in modern cinema today”, the truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in-between. This is an innovatively powerful and absorbing film, but unsettling in the graphic nature of the violence that it displays.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out October 27, 2011.