Drive is a masterpiece of outstanding craftsmanship across the board and the uncontested front-runner for the best film of the year.
Score: ***** (out of 5)
Rated: R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity.
That “sum up” line took a while to write, largely because it is difficult to put into words exactly what makes Drive so good and still do the film justice. The first solid bits of news concerning Drive came out of the Cannes film festival, where director Nicolas Winding Refn not only was awarded the Best Director accolade, but his film was nominated for the Palme d’Or, which goes to the festival’s absolute best film. Subsequent buzz for the film was almost overwhelmingly positive, with little to no negative opinions on the film at all. It seemed like the film was snowballing into a behemoth of impossibly high expectations, setting itself up to be a disappointment before even releasing. I myself remained breathlessly excited to see it, convinced I would still love it despite the massive hype. For some reasons I was expecting and some I was not, Drive shattered all of my expectations to be the best movie I’ve seen since, well, I Saw the Devil.
Drive follows a nameless stunt car driver (Ryan Gosling) who also works at a garage owned by his mentor (Bryan Cranston) and moonlights as a getaway driver. He waits outside for five minutes exactly. If the job isn’t over by then he’s gone. If the criminals make it to the car in that window, he is their driver until they are safe. Driver does not carry a gun, either. All he does is drive. He’s a stoic, enigmatic character of very few words, creating a silent tension that is not lost on the people he interacts with. The first person to crack his shell is a young woman who lives down the hall named Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaacs) is in prison. A sweet, slightly awkward relationship develops between them, as if they were two youngsters that have feelings for each other. When Standard is released from prison, his initial suspicion of Driver turns to trust, and he reveals to Driver that he owes money to some mobsters that are attempting to force Standard to rob a pawn shop. Driver agrees to help, and as these things often do in these sorts of movies, the job goes horribly awry and Driver finds himself in the crosshairs of the mobsters. He also tangles with a world-weary entrepreneur (Albert Brooks) and his thuggish business partner (Ron Perlman).
The acting throughout Drive is incredibly impressive. Driver in particular is extremely cool, and Gosling’s portrayal of him as a man with a heart and soul that can be triggered to perform moments of extreme violence is what–ahem–drives the film (I’m sorry). In fact, nothing of the brutality of the character is even seen until about a third of the way through the film, and it only first rears its head through one line. Gosling’s delivery of the line is chilling and awesome. He delivers plenty of nuance through subtle displays of emotion and explosions of quite rage, a dichotomy that makes the character a loving figure one moment and a force of nature the next. If Gosling does not get any formal recognition for his performance, it would be a travesty. His romance with Irene is slightly awkward and beautifully natural. The rest of the cast is also fantastic, from Cranston lending his character the quiet desperation of a man who is long past his prime, to Albert Brooks, a normally comedic actor who makes for a menacing villain that doesn’t quite seem to enjoy what he does, and only commits atrocities out of necessity.
Dialogue in Drive is kept to a premium, just as in the James Sallis novel the film is based upon. There is not a single line in the film that is wasted, and everything that is said is done so for a reason. This minimalist scripting works for the quiet tension, and scenes that feature less dialogue, such as those between Driver and Irene, require Gosling and Mulligan to fill the negative space with physical acting, be it a loving gaze or embarrassed smile. It also allows for Cliff Martinez’s cool 80’s-esque electronica score and the small selection of licensed music to really pop.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who prior to this helmed the excellent Bronson and Valhalla Rising, continues to hone what may very well be his most impressive talent: delivering measured, impactful violence. Drive is not an action film. There are a couple of extremely well shot chases, but Drive is no more an action film than The Godfather; and like that film, this one is more of a drama that has occasional and startling eruptions of violence. What violence there is in the film is shocking and graphic. Refn makes the sparse killings feel absolutely real and incredibly visceral. The much-hyped elevator scene from the trailer is every bit as alarmingly violent as you would expect, and some characters meet grisly ends in abrupt and genuinely startling ways. These deaths, delivered in rapid fashion, would normally begin to desensitize a viewer, but instead Refn only lets it hit intermittently, and this measured pacing of murder ensures that every death feels like a sharp blow to the head. Refn lets the tension in his film build slowly, like a revving engine, leading to uncomfortably quiet moments and a finale that will have every nerve screaming. The climax in which two characters interact is almost unbearably intense, and culminates in an immensely satisfying and very creatively filmed showdown, followed by an equally satisfying epilogue.
It’s important to note the distinction between a 4.5 and a 5-star rating. 4.5 stars signify a film that is completely great, but may lack something that made it that much better to secure it as a 5-star film. A rating of 5 stars highlights a film that is very nearly flawless, and it is a benchmark that is incredibly difficult to reach. The perfect acting from the entire cast, Refn’s brilliant direction, and the wonderfully minimalist script, however, make it impossible to to make any other statement: Drive is that film.