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Movie Review: Drive

September 16, 2011

Drive is one strange little movie – it also happens to be one of my favorite releases out this year. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Grosling and Carey Mulligan – Drive reminds me a bit of Bullitt, or the kind of movie Nicolas Cage might have made in the late ’80s and early ’90s (back when he was making awesome things, like Wild at Heart, which I loveand sincerely, I mean that as a compliment to the movie.  Drive takes risks that in lesser hands could have felt tonally inconsistent (or worse – ironic), but which instead come together and pay off in a deeply engrossing, mesmerizing film.

Opening with a night shot of Los Angeles from the interior of a hotel room, we are introduced to the Driver (Ryan Grosling) as he discusses his plans for the evening – his occasional gig as a wheelman – with two criminals who have hired him to drive the getaway car. It’s really the most dialogue you hear from the (apparently nameless) Driver and it establishes his enigmatic character perfectly. The Driver goes about his job efficiently and professionally (the Tangerine-Dream-sounding soundtrack and bright pink title cards – in an ’80s looking font, no less – kick in and assist in setting a darkly romantic tone) returning to a sparsely furnished, lonely apartment after his end of the deal is completed. From there we are treated to glimpses of his daily life: his day-job as a Hollywood stunt driver; various encounters with his neighbor – an comely mother whose husband is in prison – and her young son; and a man who appears to be his only social acquaintance, Shannon (played by the always awesome Bryan Cranston) who runs an auto shop and who hires out the Driver for both legal and illegal purposes. The pacing is deliberate here and it allows – quite perfectly – for a believable relationship to form between Irene (Carey Mulligan), her little boy, Benicio (Kaden Leos) and the Driver. This relationship – practically established by glances and chemistry alone – is the primary hook for the story and it has such a tangible tenderness that when the wheels eventually go off the buggy, so to speak, the effect is heartbreaking.

Any buds of romantic potential between the Driver and Irene are swiftly squashed by the return of her husband, Standard, who is being hounded by very dangerous men who wish to use him to pay a debt. The ties that link the Driver to Shannon, Irene, her son and her husband converge in an otherwise improbable series of coincidence and awful luck, culminating in scenes of startling violence. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of the best and worst aspects of human behavior and I was completely anxious and transfixed by these elements. The film looked beautiful and the performances from the principal actors and supporting players are fantastic (Albert Brooks – better known for his portrayals of neurotic, nebbish types – surprised me with his capacity for projecting menace and threat).  The music, which I absolutely loved, is so transporting and enthralling, it almost works as a supporting character in it’s own right.

It is difficult to define, but there is something captivating about this unusual piece of L.A. noir that has left me thinking about it for days after having watched it. Certain elements which could be described as uneven actually worked really well to move the story along, offsetting the expectations I brought with me into the theater. Stylistic choices felt earnest to me, rather than contrived, and that sincerity was consuming – wrapping me up and taking me along for this weird little journey. I can’t say that this is a film for everyone, but if you like your romance a little off – even doomed – as I do,  I think you will be in for a treat with Drive.




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