Drive (2011) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA rated: R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity
Length: 100 min.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Kaden Leos
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay: Hossein Amini (based on the novel by James Sallis)
Review published March 11, 2013

Drive 2011 Gosling RefnBased on the 2005 book by James Sallis, Ryan Gosling (Fracture, Half Nelson) stars as a Hollywood stunt driver by day and heist wheelman for the highest bidder at night (hereby called 'The Driver' for this review) in this dramatic thriller directed with skill by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising).  He's the best at what he does, and life is fairly simple until he becomes friends with Irene (Mulligan, Public Enemies), a married woman who lives on his floor with her young boy Benicio (Leos), awaiting her husband Standard's (Isaac, Sucker Punch) release from prison.  Standard is freed, but his past catches up to him, as his former cronies expect him to make good on money owed, eventually threatening the lives of Irene and Benicio if he doesn't help in a robbery.  The Driver steps in and helps in order to free Standard and (hopefully) save his family, but soon finds there is far more involved than a simple smash-and-grab of a pawn shop.

Drive plays like a mix of Steve McQueen flick, as if it were directed by a young Michael Mann with a dash of Taxi Driver, with its terse dialogue and sleek, stylized, music-tinged sequences, though with sudden bursts of rather bloody, quite disturbingly graphic violence.  Though it is a thriller at heart, and does have a high-speed driving subtext, the film feels more like a throwback to the music video stylized, R-rated crime dramas of the 1980s than the new Fast & the Furious over-the-top, CGI-infused modern action-thrillers.  Instead of quick cut montages and smirky quips, there is an emphasis on long tracking shots and sparse dialogue, which downplays the excitement of the piece in exchange for a thoughtful and nearly existential vibe.

It's an angst-driven piece full of squandered lives of people who are stuck in their stations in life, always dreaming of clawing their way out, but finding themselves forced to be that which they so desperately wish they no longer could be due to the boundaries set upon them by others.  The Driver and Irene have an instant connection which manifests itself into something deeper during their exposure to one another, and though they wish they could break through the barrier of her marriage, it's an obstacle that remains.  Meanwhile, the Driver is on the verge of going legit through a scheme that his garage-owner and stunt coordinator boss, Shannon (Cranston, Little Miss Sunshine), has of becoming a stock car racer, though to get the funding for such an undertaking, they become more entrenched in needing money from underworld types like local criminal Bernie Rose (Brooks, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World) and his less scrupulous crime boss Nino (Perlman, Season of the Witch).

The Driver, though taciturn, becomes the antihero of the piece, as the one with the moral code that says that it's one thing for him to engage in a life of crime in order to make a living, but it's not in his code of ethics for it to spill over and effect the lives of those who never chose such a life.  With his quiet strength, there builds mystique, not unlike another frequent Man-with-No-Name portrayer, Clint Eastwood.

Drive is minimalist yet absorbing, and a breath of fresh air from the pat and predictable action thrillers that currently clog up the theaters.  Instead of one-upping the competition through wilder crashes and massive explosions, Refn shows that less is certainly more by playing for subdued effect.  When the violence does emerge, it is fast and nasty, and usually catches us off guard. It's so retro, it is an irony that it emerges as one of the freshest thrillers of the year.  Though not nearly as flashy and hip as a Tarantino rehash, Refn owns his knowingly B-movie premise, not to mention its quite generic title, and delivers a visually gorgeous, mesmerizing neo-noir car chase flick that is both rife with homage and something altogether new.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo