Friday, September 23, 2011

In Theaters: Drive

Poster and IMPAwards link

Drive is a unique experience, and because of that it may not hang around theaters for long. It's basically a crime thriller done in the style of a film from the eighties, with neon-letter titles and a score reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. But in its spare beauty, deliberate pace, and moments of merciless brutality, it's not something you can easily peg as a genre piece or style emulation. This may be why it's having a polarizing effect on audiences, and why the people distributing it can't quite work out how to sell it. Most of the time we want a clear idea of what kind of movie we're going to see and what we're to expect from it, but if you can take Drive on its own terms and let it establish itself, it's a rich and compelling thing.

Ryan Gosling stars as a nameless stunt driver who works on movies, supervised by an old garage owner named Shannon (Bryan Cranston.) He's being prepped to become a racer on the stock car circuit, but in the mean time he's befriended his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who is raising a young boy alone. When the boy's father (Oscar Isaac) comes home from a stint in prison, he turns out to still have a lot of debts owed, and the protagonist- who had been growing very close to Irene- offers to help him with a small pawn shop heist to pay them off. This being a small-time heist in a movie, it ends in disaster, and the driver finds himself involved in something dangerous not only to himself but to Irene and her child.

This is a film that takes its time, and as a result we're never quite sure what genre it's approaching until it arrives there. The precredits sequence has the driver helping a couple of petty thugs, but there's a minimum of violence and sped- instead he very slowly and deliberately maneuvers them out of trouble. For a time it looks like it might be a very old-fashioned kind of drama, where a man has a dangerous profession but the conflict is his trying to reach a place of normalcy. But that quickly moves out of reach, and his conflict becomes one of survival. Even as the film becomes increasingly brutal, it retains a meditative, zenlike deliberateness, and this makes it more suspenseful, because we can never be sure when the next act of violence will erupt.

Adding to this near-mystic quality is the film's look, which is very carefully controlled. All sorts of colors and shades of light play on the characters- the familiar blue and orange predominate, but not gratuitously, and it's clear that in every scene both the director and cinematographer have thought very carefully about what the lights, colors, and focus are saying about the story. The action is swift and surprisingly gory, but also skillfully choreographed. It's another one of the film's "old fashioned" elements, with little of the absurd physics of modern car race and chase epics; it mostly reminds me of the messy, very solid violence of 2005's A History of Violence.

The film's minimalist qualities do make the characters distant; our driver obviously doesn't even have a name, and without a whole lot of dialogue the film is counting on the actors to fill in the blanks. And to be sure, it's an excellent cast; Gosling is a fascinatingly blank slate, his expression often impenetrable but always moving with deliberateness. Carey Mulligan is just inherently charming, and Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman do a fascinating double act as two small-time gangsters.  Though the characterization is spare, it doesn't feel underwritten; for once we do actually see all we need, and there's a lot burbling under the surface of a given scene.

It's hard to say what overall point Drive is aiming for, or what it all means. It's about a man who lives apart from the world, attempts to connect with it, and is drawn into something ugly. That's about as far as I'm willing to go right now. But it's something so vibrant and intense that it doesn't have to explain everything about itself; it tells a simple story that's loaded with unexpressed emotions and powerful images. I'm not entirely sure what I saw, but it left me rattled.

Based on the book by James Sallis
Screenplay by Hossein Amini
Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

Grade: A

1 comment:

Jimmy J. Aquino said...

Nice post on the unique qualities of Drive. I agree with you that it isn't a film that's easy to categorize, and that unpredictability is one of several aspects that have distinguished Drive from a lot of the drivel in theaters this year. The puzzled reactions to Drive, which I mentioned also in my blog post about the movie's soundtrack, are almost as interesting as the movie itself.

Drive's near-mystic look is due to Newton Thomas Sigel, the skilled cinematographer from Three Kings and Bryan Singer projects like The Usual Suspects and the pilot episode of House--a pilot that had the same orangey color schemes as Drive.