Drive is a strange movie. As an action film it’s too slow. As a character piece it’s character isn’t super compelling. As a crime movie it focuses very little on the crimes. However, as a movie it’s really great. It is like Hanna in that the style propels the film more than any other element. It is like Hanna in that it does some things that you wouldn’t expect from a movie about a guy that drives really well. It is like Hanna in that it’s one of the best films of the year so far. In fact, only Hanna is better than this, from what I’ve seen.
Nicolas Winding Refn‘s first “American” movie is about Ryan Gosling‘s Driver, a guy that drives really well. Sometimes he does it on the racetrack, other times he does it on Hollywood sets, but he gets the real bucks being a getaway driver for various criminals as they crime their way through Los Angeles. As I looked through Gosling’s IMDb sheet I was shocked to find I’d only seen him in two other things: Remember the Titans and an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. And I don’t remember him in either. I don’t know how I missed most of his career, but he’s really good here. He doesn’t have much to say in terms of dialogue but the way he inhabits the Driver character is pretty great. You can tell all you need to know from the movement of his eyes or the way he puts on his driving gloves.
And the movie gives you enough time to study those performance elements. It’s not the crazy, non-stop, kinetic wonderland that Hanna is. It’s a slow, deliberate, methodical film. As you might expect from a movie called Drive, there’s a lot of time spent going from place to place. But this isn’t wasted time. It’s time for the Driver to think, and time for us to watch him process the world. The actual car chase scenes are few and far between, though done very well and in a way that I haven’t seen before. In an early scene we see the Driver lose the cops, then get spotted again, then lost, then spotted. It makes sense in a way that I haven’t seen on film before. He doesn’t go around destroying the police cars or anything, he just knows exactly what he’s doing and in doing so evades the cops eventually.
There’s also a few other people in the movie. I’ve always liked Carey Mulligan and she’s charming as ever in this film. She doesn’t have much to do other than fall in love and then find out who the Driver really is, but she plays those moments well. You understand what’s going on with her at all times, just like you do with the Driver. The other important character is the main crime boss, played by Albert Brooks. This isn’t the typical role for Brooks, a mostly serious and seriously screwed up bad guy. He does the role well, though, and it’s easy to see how he became such a big guy in the LA underworld.
The direction is phenomenal. The movie is very stylish, from the way the camera moves to the intensity of the lighting and the use of slo-mo everything is working overtime to bring you into the Driver’s world. There are a few scenes of violence that top most of movie-dom in terms of what you see and hear, though it’s interesting to note that after somebody gets their head blown off in all of it’s gory glory, the camera declines to show the next person’s death. It’s an interesting choice to stay on the Driver instead of cutting to his opponent’s bloody body and an effective one. Nothing would top the explosion of blood and brains so instead we see how the Driver deals with his first bloody act. The score, too, errs on the obvious side. Besides the pulsing electronic score by Cliff Martinez there are some songs that get right to the point of what the Driver is feeling at the moment. The lyrics can be a bit on the nose but in a movie called Drive which plays everything in an up-front and stylish way they fit right in.
Drive is a movie that only a few will truly love. People will be turned off by the pace or the violence or the style or the minimalist acting. If all of those things work for you, though, Drive will end up among your favorites of the year, as it does for me.