Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Film Review: Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Hossein Amini
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston

Much had been made of Drive before it was released in cinemas due to its notoriety in film festivals culminating in a standing ovation at Cannes, and the Best Director award going to Nicolas Winding Refn*. The film is many things, all of them very good, but somewhat short of the ‘masterpiece’ some have heralded it as. In 2011 though, it is easily one of the year’s best by far and I’ve now seen it twice.

The story is simple; a nameless man (referred in the credits as ‘Driver’) works by day as a mechanic and part-time stunt driver, and by night he offers his driving skills to criminals as their getaway driver. He falls in love with a woman in his apartment block but her husband is soon released from jail and this is where the plot thickens. Deep in debt to ‘people on the outside’, the husband needs to get his hands on some cash and quickly before he’s killed. Driver offers to help in a pawn shop heist because he loves the man’s wife, and a bloodbath follows in the fallout of the robbery.

It’s a story we’ve seen many times before, and this is where Drive falls into the ‘standard fare’ category of movies. It’s in the execution where Drive excels as a piece of adult storytelling. To do the film and final verdict justice, we must examine both parts in equal measure.

Firstly, let’s examine the direction and the style of Drive. Refn has drenched his film in a signature style, heavily borrowed from masters such as Michael Mann, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Yates, and William Friedkin. but never ripping them off and always adding his own influence. The beauty of Drive is that it looks sublime throughout and the director never forgets the commitment he seems to have made us from the opening shot - a promise that this film will be a pleasure to watch, even in its more violent, bloodier moment (of which there are plenty).

The opening 10 minutes is as good as anything I’ve seen this year, and arguably the film’s best sequence. A neon-soaked night time Los Angeles is the scene for Driver to make his mark on us. He is dressed as stylishly as Refn films him, with a Patek Philippe watch and Gasper driving gloves. The man of few words begins the film by telling his employers for the night “you give me a time and a place and I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours.” He is a man for hire, a man with nothing to lose.

Evoking the style of shooting L.A Michael Mann has pioneered since Heat in 1995, the scene is set for a dark, brooding thriller. This is indeed what we get over the next 90 minutes, but Refn never quite hits the same heights as his opening 10-15. Michael Mann is a film maker who has found his style, Refn is a man just starting to understand his. Anyone familiar with Mann’s film making will know his use of music is as important as what he shows; Drive has an 80s (or 80s influenced) synthesised, electronic soundtrack pumping throughout. Some works very well, but at times it feels a little too obvious. “I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. You keep me under your spell” says ‘Under Your Spell’ by Desire as the film cuts between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan looking all sad and lonely. The film is better than that.

In a scene where Driver visits a strip club, Refn echoes the framing and minute accuracy of Kubrick in works such as Eyes Wide Shut and A Clockwork Orange. Look at the red velvet curtain, the yellow-white lights, the deliberate position of the women’s posture, the unashamed nudity; each frame like a photograph. Again, this scene stands out as it’s style is never returned to.

For a film called Drive, there isn’t much driving, but when speed and cars are involved Refn keeps his focus very ‘real’ and true to the film’s tone. The camera isn’t going under the cars or through the alloy wheels, but the stunt work keeps to the tradition of benchmark productions such as The French Connection or Bullitt. Never as epic as either film, of course, but a refreshing sight nonetheless.

Where I must criticise Drive is in two aspects. Firstly, the script is full of ‘stock dialogue’ borrowed from other films; what Driver lacks in talk, the other characters fill in but with aimless dialogue. Lots of crime talk about ‘punks’, ‘mob’ ‘the family’ and ‘the money always flows up’. Moreover, the scenes without Gosling are noticeably weak; his character is the only one who is focused on, but even his isn’t without question. The fact that he is a stunt driver is never used other than for the one brief car chase, and the ‘driver for hire’ scheme which opens the film is never explored again. Yes, he helps the husband in his robbery, but this is by choice. Driver is a man who acts without any motivation and his acts are the ones which move the film forward. What he does looks great on film, but why he is doing them is not fully explained. If we look at other films where a seemingly non-violent man then explodes into auto violence, we see a character with a background and a reason for doing what they do; A History of Violence, Collateral, Straw Dogs, and Taxi Driver all come to mind as prime examples.

Some may even compare Drive to Taxi Driver and on the surface the two are comparable, but anyone who understands Taxi Driver and Paul Schrader’s screenplay will see straight through Refn’s characters. Credit goes to Ryan Gosling as Driver; through his actions we believe there is a past to this man, something he is running away from or an event he has always been heading towards (such as the story he now finds himself in), but the script allows for nothing concrete. Is he simply a psycho living next door who falls in love to easily? I’d like to think there’s a lot more to him and the film than just that.

Character motivation is a key component to enjoying or believing any film you see, regardless of the genre or story; and because of the neglect to give Driver a back story or make true use of his criminal past time, Drive narrowly misses becoming an ‘instant classic’. But what it is is an excellent film and deserving of all the praise it will get.


* How Terrence Malick didn’t win for Tree Of Life is beyond me.

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