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[Review] DRIVE is the best film of 2011

Disclaimer: Drive is not The Fast and the Furious: The Notebook Edition. If you are expecting this film to be a full-throttle, noisy, CGI-riddled action-fest starring that babe from the romantic film with Rachel McAdams, you are in the wrong place. Like this woman. However, if you are partial to a superbly-acted, purposefully-paced and artfully-stylised indie action film with a dash of (R18) ultra-violence: read on.

Adapted from James Sallis’ novella by Hossein Amini, Drive follows a few days in the life of a solitary stunt driver who works on film sets by day and moonlights as a getaway driver. Ryan Gosling, fast becoming one of the finest actors of his generation, stars as The Driver. His character is comparable to Clint Eastwood’s infamous Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy (with a toothpick in place of a cigarillo), as well as Alain Delon’s cool and calculating loner hitman in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. Like those men, The Driver wears the same clothes throughout the film (a stained white jacket with a yellow scorpion on the back) and only speaks when spoken to, communicating mostly with his eyes and radiating toughness while always keeping his composure. The Driver, who has no family and no history to our knowledge, is an existential hero and the epitome of cool; Gosling’s nuanced performance deserves favourable comparisons to the likes of Steve McQueen. He has already proven himself more than capable in both mainstream fare (The Notebook, Crazy, Stupid, Love) and more challenging indie dramas (Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine), but I get the feeling this is the film Gosling will be remembered for.

Drive is the first Hollywood film by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, known for his stylish and brutal Pusher trilogy and Bronson. Refn deftly blends European style and sensibilities to a modern American noir story here, borrowing from past genre films as adeptly as Quentin Tarantino (cinephiles will have a blast noting the influences). Walter Hill’s 1978 crime film The Driver, which also features an unnamed getaway driver, and the classic car chases of Bullitt are obvious influences. Drive‘s noirish heist-gone-wrong story, retro ’80s electro soundtrack and Los Angeles setting also recall Michael Mann’s 1981 gritty heist film Thief and William Friedkin’s 1985 neo-noir To Live and Die in L.A. The ultra-violent vengeance spree is reminiscent of John Boorman’s Point Blank. As we learn in the remarkably intense opening sequence, The Driver hires himself out to criminals as a short-term accomplice. He doesn’t carry a gun or concern himself with the details of the job. “I drive,” he says. The Driver demonstrates his driving skills, grace under pressure and command of Los Angeles’ streets as he efficiently escapes from a web of police cars and helicopters following a late-night warehouse robbery. The film features a couple of exhilarating car chases, which are cleanly edited and avoid CGI (refreshing in 2011), but Refn’s ambition is never to top Bullitt or The French ConnectionDrive is more akin to the moody tradition of noir cinema, where the hero falls for the wrong girl and ends up with a cursed bag of money that destroys everyone it comes into contact with.

The lovely and vulnerable Carey Mulligan (An Education) plays Irene, the aforementioned wrong girl. She lives next door to The Driver with her young son Benecio, and allows herself and The Driver to grow close before remembering that her oddly-named husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), is about to come home from a stint in prison. When Standard’s prison debts threaten the safety of his family, The Driver fatefully decides to help him out with “one last job” to get some dangerous gangsters off his back. In the Murphy’s Law tradition of all noir, the pawnshop robbery goes as badly as it could, leaving The Driver hiding out in a motel with a woman he’s just met named Blanche (Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks in a memorable turn) and an unexpectedly large bag of money belonging to some very bad people. Drive‘s terrific supporting cast also includes Ron Perlman as Nino, a vulgar Jewish gangster who runs a pizzeria as a front; comedian Albert Brooks cast wonderfully against type as Nino’s seemingly-more-reasonable-but-far-more-sinister partner, Bernie; and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as The Driver’s paternal employer and only friend, Shannon.

The sequences between the action set pieces are quiet and moody, which dramatically counteracts the intense car chases and increasingly gory killings that escalate as The Driver risks all to protect Irene and Benecio. The audience at the screening I attended were so uncomfortable with the brutality of the violence they began to laugh out loud, which was an unexpected reaction. American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis recently remarked on Twitter: “The best thing about Drive is its violence. I can’t remember an American movie which caused grown men in the audience to recoil vocally”. The dreamlike visual style Refn has created for Drive is so far above every Hollywood action film today it’s not even worth comparing. Phrases like “hypnotic” and “mesmerising” don’t go far enough to convey this film’s striking imagery. Drive announces Refn as a new master; he has made the kind of American crime film that is not only stylish and entertaining but also addresses violence and human nature in a way that only the likes of Michael Mann (Collateral), Steven Soderbergh (The Limey) and David Cronenberg (A History of Violence) have been able to deliver in recent years. This year’s Cannes jury obviously agreed, since they awarded Refn with Best Director for Drive.

Drive‘s soundtrack is also worthy of praise. The atmospheric score by regular Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez fits the film’s mood perfectly, as do the handful of ’80s-influenced electro tracks selected by Refn for the soundtrack. ‘Nightcall’ by French electronic artist Kavinsky (featuring vocals from CSS’ Lovefoxxx) plays over the lipstick-scrawled opening credits, and it’s easily one of the coolest tracks of the year. So cool in fact that hipsters everywhere were praising Drive‘s soundtrack long before the film was even released, and positive word of mouth shot the soundtrack to #4 on the iTunes charts in the US. ‘A Real Hero’ by College (another French producer) featuring Electronic Youth is another standout, providing the theme song for The Driver as it’s repeated throughout the film (and no doubt repeating in the heads of viewers long after the film finishes). The soundtrack is another example of Refn marrying European sensibilities to an American story with wonderful results.

Drive is a truly mesmerising, hyper-stylised and ultra-violent modern noir which effortlessly redefines “cool” and puts every over-edited Hollywood action film to shame. Ryan Gosling’s nuanced performance, the terrific supporting cast and killer retro soundtrack elevate Nicolas Winding Refn’s work to the best film of the year.

RATING: A

Drive is out now at Event and Rialto cinemas around New Zealand. Watch the international trailer below (if you can excuse the French subs).

Watch Drive‘s two minute opening scene below.

Listen to ‘Nightcall’ by Kravinsky ft. Lovefoxxx, a highlight from the Drive OST, below.

4 pings

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