Monday, September 19, 2011
Nicolas Winding Refn's extraordinary Drive is the second major film to come out this month to turn the spectacle of men pulverizing men into cinematic poetry. The other one is Warrior, and despite the middling box office showing of that epic UFC battle-of-the-meatheads, I think it's going to become a sports classic. Drive has a similarly bright future. Its detractors can't be easily dismissed, but I'm an unapologetic champion of this film, which is easily the year's most violent and certainly one of the better crafted genre pics to come along in a good long while.
The stripped down plot concerns a Hollywood stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who earns extra cash as a getaway driver. The sort of reticent, highly regimented criminal who eschews emotional commitments a la Robert De Niro's master thief in Heat, the nameless Driver seems to violate his own code when he befriends his beautiful neighbor (Carrie Mulligan) and her young son (Kaden Leos). These attachments lead to a series of fatal mishaps that put him on the bad side of two very scary men with mob connections, played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.
Gosling has said Drive is his superhero movie, and if so it's one that definitively skips the origin story. Driver's background is so sketchily drawn that you begin to wonder about his credentials when he picks up a hammer and threatens to pound a nail in a goon's brain; how did the guy get so tough? The film's detractors point out that the plotting is too sparse and the characters are all one-dimensional, and indeed so little is explained that it's easy to poke holes through Hossein Amini's screenplay. For instance, why would the bad guy put himself in such a vulnerable situation at the climax? But no matter; Drive is the action thriller boiled down to its essence. By throwing out exposition almost entirely, Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) is able to stage the film as a series of *encounters*, each more jaw-dropping than the last. Audiences will be agog during the opening chase in which Driver eludes the police, and later during a pawn shop heist that goes terribly awry. Is this a muscular piece of direction or what?
That's not to say originality is Refn's strong suit. This is essentially a 21st-century update of Thief. Like Michael Mann's brilliant neo-noir film debut, Drive draws it strengths from a charismatic lead performance, a pulse-pounding synthesizer score and ultra-stylish set pieces. Towering over it all is funnyman Brooks' astonishing performance as Bernie Rose, an incredibly evil man who has a very up-close-and-personal way of dispatching his enemies. There are a few scenes in Drive that I think will become notorious, and certainly one of those is the whole "is that a fork in my eye or are you just unhappy to see me?" scene. But the moment I found most chilling was when Bernie offers his hand and ends up slitting a man's wrist. What's most disturbing about that scene is the killer actually thinks he's being considerate; that's Bernie at his nicest. Drive isn't perfect, but it's the work of a director who's got talent to burn.