Sunday, March 8, 2015

Silent But Deadly

Year: 2011
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I'm a terrible film major. I spent so much of my time watching ancient VHS detritus like Sorority House Massacre II or Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! that I'm frequently out of the loop when it comes to truly "important" cinema, like BirdmanKill Bill, Moonrise Kingdom, or anything that the medium-strength pretentious people around me like to talk about. As a TA, I've graded so many film essays about classics that I've never given proper attention to, so I decided to take a leap with a freshman favorite: Drive*.

Well, Sergio decided for me. But regardless, it happened.

*Other perennial classics with the youngsters include Fight Club, The Dark Knight, Star Wars, and - inexplicably - The Silver Linings Playbook.

I can't really complain, considering that the 80's, Ryan Gosling, and bright colors are three of my favorite things.

Drive tells the story of an unnamed man (Ryan Gosling) who works as a stunt driver in Hollywood and moonlights as a getaway driver. He's a laconic, stylish, mostly emotionless individual who begins to open up once he connects with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). After Benicio's father gets out of jail, the Driver finds himself drawn by his affection for Irene and his unsavory job into the seedy underbelly of LA. As he finds himself deeper and deeper in the criminal underworld, he works with his boss/confidant Shannon (Brian Cranston) to attempt to sever ties with Jewish mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his shady partner Nino (Ron Perlman).

As things go from bad to worse, the driver must steel himself for his story's inevitable violent conclusion.

It's like the crime-thriller version of whenever I write about Glee on The Backlot.

Everything about Drive is stripped-down and simple, but relentlessly cool and propulsive, like a race car engine. I think. Maybe. This isn't a car blog, alright? This concept, reflected in every aspect of the filmmaking, finds its greatest home in the soundtrack. The Driver's nighttime world of neon and glowing traffic lights is imbued with ambient mystery by sturdy 80's-inspired synth tracks.

Obviously that kind of thing appeals to me, considering that about 60 percent of my iTunes catalogue is composed of songs so synth-fueled, they would give Simon Le Bon a headache. But Drive's soundtrack choices are just plain cool. The tracks refrain from excess, merely providing a slick, evocative soundscape for the stylized world of the film.

Style. That's the word I keep coming back to and for good reason. Style is driving force of the film (so to speak), liberally applied by the guiding hand of director Nicolas Winding Refn. Though the Danish filmmaker may personally stray into hyperbolic pretention more often than not, his hold over the slippery craft of filmmaking remains firm and assured.

The style is so heightened and superb that, when the going gets gory (and it does, in spades), squeamish viewers will be able to stomach even the worst the film has to offer thanks to the film's carefully crafted division from reality. Though it takes care not to divorce itself so much from the real world that those moments aren't still brutal and repugnant. Thanks, Drive.

So. Style. Slow motion, symmetry, reflection, and color are Refn's tools, and Drive is his sandbox. He arranges and rearranges these elements until they form a perfect, smooth aesthetic that allows the story to course through its veins like a shot of nitro (Is that a car thing? My only experience with racing is Mario Kart.). 

My humblest apologies to Mssrs. Gosling and LoveBug.

On top of is pristine style, Drive has a screenplay that might just be the most mechanically precise work ever created from the human imagination. In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that it wasn't written by a terrifying supercomputer. 

Every single aspect of the film's mise-en-scène supports its central throughline. Whether it's cheers from a radio sports game underscoring a successful getaway attempt, a red light stopping the car at precise emotional beats, an elevator door emphasizing a schism in a relationship, or a kid's cartoon perfectly summarizing the film's theme, Drive's screenplay works like Swiss clockwork. 

Drawing elements from Aesopian fable, Greek drama, and classic American thriller screenwriting, Drive is basically the perfect machine. This effect comes at the expense of some of the film's humanity, but on that front, the film has a secret weapon: Mr. Ryan Gosling.

Although his character practically has fewer lines of dialogue than Jason Voorhees, Gosling imbues him with a strong personality and moral structure, buried deep beneath his calm exterior, like whale song beneath the calm moonlit ocean.

He inspires the poetic side of me, what can I say?

The entire film is filtered through his character, to the point that many key events in scenes are kept largely offscreen, so we can watch his responses to things rather than the things themselves. That might sound counterintuitive, but the man's eyes are so damn expressive that you can feel every blow, every mote of drama that the world has to offer all through his microscopic reactions. The theater kid inside of me wants to knock his block off in a jealous tantrum.

What's even more impressive is that this performance could have been a total wash. In the hands of any other actor, the empty role would just have been filled with a pretty face and a broad shoulder and been completely efficient. But Gosling elevates the character above his material, even if he could have just coasted through on the fact that the first act is essentially just Ryan Gosling uniform porn. I swear, they put him in just about every single fetishized outfit that Tumblr bloggers can imagine. Check it:

Ryan Gosling as Vic Victor, the hard-nosed vigilante cop with a big appetite.

Ryan Gosling as Edge Streetly, the hunky yet humble mechanic.

Ryan Gosling as... OK, no theory is perfect.

It'd be so easy to let that perfectly symmetrical mug control his performance, but Gosling just goes ahead and owns the screen anyway. Something must be said for the other performers, of whom Carey Mulligan is a clear stand-out in a refreshingly un-idealized role, but Gosling's performance overpowers the ample talents of his co-stars, dulling them with his supernova brightness. His screen presence is so riveting that he sucks some of the emulsion right off the negative.

There's some film student humor for ya. Hey, at least I'm getting something out of my final semester in the academic sphere.

Anyway, my only real qualms with the film revolve around its central simplicity. Its aims and its means tend to be straightforward, but some second act wrinkles breach the straightforward nature of the film, introducing a few too many characters, motivations, and extraneous plot points into its Spartan storyline.

Beyond that? Nothing. Drive is a terrific watch, full of handsome men doing terrible things to terrible men and discovering what it means to be a real human being (or, if you listen to the film's most played song, a "real human bean."). And that's nothing to shake a stick shift at.

TL;DR: Drive is a Swiss watch mechanical thriller with a neon, 80's-infused aesthetic.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1229


  1. A contemporary great. Love this one with all of my heart. This was the film that cemented my love for Gosling forever.

  2. I love some Drive too. I still don't know why he bothers wearing that creepy mask in that scene.