Movie Review: Drive (R)


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Length: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Age Appropriate for: 16+. So much violence! But while the film is bloody, those scenes of over-the-top gore are somewhat unbelievable. At the time, they’re riveting, but they’re not so despicable or gratuitous that older teens will be disgusted or scarred. There’s also cursing and nudity, in the form of topless dancers backstage at a strip club.

‘Drive’ is the best film to come out so far this year. We’re nine months into 2011. Better step your game up, October-November-December — you have a perfect film to compete against.

By Roxana Hadadi

Nothing about “Drive” should work.

An existential antihero, an ‘80s-inspired Euro-electro soundtrack, a threatening turn from lovable teddy bear Albert Brooks — they’re elements defined by their disparity. But thanks to an edgy vision from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, “Drive” is a fantastically exhilarating modern noir, one that moves along all slinky before accelerating to a fever pitch.

It’s the best movie of the year, one that displays the potential of both Refn (who previously helmed the ultra-violent “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising”) and star Ryan Gosling, who is light-years away from the suave hottie looking for real companionship he played in this summer’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” That movie made legions of women drool over Gosling, but “Drive” should force you to fully appreciate the range he has exhibited in previous films like “Blue Valentine,” “Half Nelson” and “The Believer.” The man will get an Oscar sometime in the future. He just has to.

Gosling chose Refn to direct “Drive,” and it’s probably the smartest decision he could have made. In an interview with Chesapeake Family, Refn claimed he’s a “fetish filmmaker,” someone who “can only make films based on myself,” and that makes sense. The man who is known for scenes of over-the-top brutality (in “Valhalla Rising,” a character cuts open another and pulls his intestines out!) brings that same aesthetic to “Drive,” which was adapted by screenwriter Hossein Amini from the 2005 novel by James Sallis. While filming, Refn and Gosling would spend nights at 101 Diner in Encinitas, Calif., poring over Amini’s script, Refn says, forming a bond the director calls a “telekinetic relationship.” (I’m sure he meant telepathic … right?)

“We became … one person; we talk all the time,” Refn says of his friendship with Gosling, whom he will work with again on a future remake of the 1976 sci-fi film “Logan’s Run.” “Ryan and I would figure out, ‘What do we really want to say?’ He was like a volcano of emotion.”

That’s an understatement. Refn describes the role of Driver as “strange and mysterious,” and Gosling eerily, uncannily and splendidly embodies everything associated with the character, a young man seemingly with no past and no family. By day, he works at a garage owned by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), somewhat of a father figure who also gets him jobs doing stunt driving for movie sets. By night, Driver slips on his satin baseball jacket, creamy ivory with a giant gold scorpion embroidered on the back, and drives for any criminal Shannon will hook him up with. Everyone gets a five-minute window, and after that, Driver is gone — and “you’re on your own.”

It’s a sinister, threatening life, but from the first scene when Driver calmly outruns a series of cops, weaving his way in and out of Los Angeles’s abandoned streets and desolate underworld, it’s clear he knows what he’s doing, unfazed by nothing. This isn’t driving like the guys in “Fast Five” did it; this is genius and cunning and pure brazen will.

For the most part, Driver is a seemingly blank force, but we slowly begin to understand that both touching tenderness and astonishing violence lurk beneath the surface. Driver first begins to show glimmers of something when he notices a pretty young mother, Irene (Carey Mulligan), who just moved into his building with her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). A wicked half-smile from Driver can convey a countless variety of emotions — smugness, cockiness, joy, resentment, aggression — and he runs through them all when bonding with Irene and Benicio, learning that her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is about to get out of prison, and getting drawn into a web of heists and cons that involves Standard, Shannon and local bad guys Bernie (Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). This is a world without mercy and without second chances, and how Driver navigates the battlefield of urban Los Angeles to protect who he cares about gives every scene an urgent, uncontrollable thrill.

In “Drive,” Refn creates a world inundated with opposites — the film is based on a “Grimm fairy tale structure,” he says — and it’s easy to understand the characters when he explains Driver is “like a knight,” striving to defend the princess Irene, a paragon of “innocence and purity,” from the nefarious plans of the king, Bernie, and his dragon, Nino. As Driver, Gosling is disturbing and exquisite: Everything about him oozes charm, whether he’s lightheartedly showing Irene and Benicio a hidden oasis in the middle of a concrete basin in Los Angeles or kicking a bad guy’s face to a pulp in a dimly lit elevator. Similarly magnetic is Brooks, who has never played a bad guy before but excels at it here, displaying a kind of brusque honesty and ruthlessness that brings to mind his turn in “Broadcast News.” He does things with a razor that make brutal, beautiful sense.

But none of this could have come together if not for Refn, who says, “There is nothing too extreme for me,” and delivers on that proclamation with “Drive.” It’s a deliriously stylish jolt of a film, one that far surpasses anything else released this year and lives up to Refn’s musing that “violence is very intimate … it touches you much deeper.” He’s right, and “Drive” is great, and Refn deserved that Best Director Award he got at Cannes earlier this year, and Gosling needs an Oscar nod. It’s really as simple as that.