Ryan Gosling Round-Up : “Drive”

Posted: October 11, 2011 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

We’ve just got to face it, folks — Ryan Gosling is everywhere these days. Well, okay, maybe not everywhere, but he is in two of the most talked-about films currently playing in theaters, so let’s take a look at each, shall we?

Truth be told, bad-ass Dane Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a movie I meant to review a few weeks back when it first came out, but a vacation, and then lots of catch-up at the day job, prevented me from doing so. Honestly, though, it’s just as well because now I can comment not only on the film itself, but also on some of the absolutely ludicrous backlash it’s generated, most notably from a Michigan woman who is suing the filmmakers for not delivering the Fast And Furious-type garbage action flick she was expecting, and has thrown in some absolutely unfounded charges of anti-semitism (that we won’t even do the courtesy of examining) just for good measure. In short, while most critics, and most of the Hollywood self-appointed elite, are absolutely drooling over this flick, a small but for some reason extremely vocal minority of moviegoers hate this thing with a passion bordering on the pathological.

Why? Good fucking question, because for once, the critical establishment has it absolutely right — Drive is nothing less than a modern masterpiece. Heady praise, to be sure, but damn if this film hasn’t earned it. Refn is known for his grittiness, whether he’s looking at the life of one of Britain’s most notorious criminals in Bronson, or demystifying (and consequently re-mystifying — trust me, if you see it you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about) the traditional Viking warrior saga in Valhalla Rising, and Drive , while as stylistically different to those two films as they are to each other, is no exception — this is one movie that’s not afraid to get its hands dirty.

Despite a heroically liberal amount of — uhhhmmm — “borrowing” from early-80s action thrillers of the Michael Mann and William Friedkin variety (Manhunter and To Live And Die In L.A. being the two films this one is most often compared to, and not without good reason) and 70s exploitation fare (listen closely for the insertion of Riz Ortolani’s spellbinding theme from Goodbye, Uncle Tom about 2/3 of the way through the film), it’s Refn’s skill as an actor’s director, rather than his admittedly flashy visual and tonal homages, that carries the day here. His casting, though unorthodox, is spot-on, and, dare I say it, even visionary. Not many people would have the guts to cast Albert Brooks as a psycho mobster, and fewer directors still could actually make it work, but by kicking back and trusting his actors, Refn allows them to do what they do best and the result is more than one Oscar-worthy performance (even if Brooks is getting most of the accolades, the Academy shouldn’t look past Gosling and Bryan Cranston, either).

The story is deceptively simple — Gosling stars as a character known only as “Driver,” a part-time Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights at a garage and also as a wheelman for stick-up artists. His gigs in that less savory line of work are generally arranged for him by his boos, Shannon (Cranston), and while he tries his best to come off a working-class Steve McQueen, in truth Driver longs for some kind of stability and some people to care for. He thinks he may have found that type of set-up with his rather fetching new neighbor (played by Carey Mulligan) and her young son, but when neighbor-lady’s husband (portrayed by Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, any hopes of a romance on Driver’s part are dashed, but he still clings to the sense of normalcy and belonging this less-than-traditional family brings out in him, to the extent that he offers to (he thinks) help out when hubby gets in deep to some guys he knew from the inside who want him to pay off his “debt” by ripping off a pawn shop.

Needless to say, things don’t go well (and look for Christina Hendricks in a role about as far removed from the glitz and glamor of Mad Men as you’re going to find as a low-rent femme-less-than-fatale accomplice in this doomed caper), and soon Driver finds himself up shit creek with a couple of Shelly’s more unscrupulous friends, sleazebag mobster Bernie Rose (Brooks) and his underling Nino (Ron Perlman), who had some pretty direct ties to the whole affair and now want the money back to save their own asses. At this point the desperation amongst all the principal characters is so thick you can cut it with a knife, and Driver decides there’s only one way out — and not necessarily for himself. It’s the safety of his girl next door and her little boy that weighs first and foremost on his mind, and he’s willing to sacrifice everything and everyone including possibly even himself, to insure it.

A bloodbath of absolutely epic proportions ensues, that serves to change Driver’s lady-almost-love’s perceptions of him irrevocably for the worse even as he’s trying to save her, and before we can even blink we’ve gone headlong from gritty street drama into classical tragedy without even batting an eye. Not too many directors can pull this sleight-of-hand off so apparently effortlessly (Tarantino, for instance, to whom Refn is also being compared, certainly couldn’t, simply because subtlety just isn’t in his repertoire — and for all the blood and thunder that the last act of Drive has on offer, it’s still subtlety, especially in terms of the nuanced performances he coaxes out of his actors, that is the most deadly arrow in Refn’s quiver).

And it’s that last act that’s really at the heart of much of the backlash against this film. Yes, it’s deceptively marketed, but shit, this film is seriously hard to categorize. Part arthouse film, part exploitation flick (not that the line between the two need necessarily be a bright red demarcation — remember, a lot of “arsty” European flicks were marketed as grindhouse fare stateside in the 1970s), part character study, and part Greek tragedy, Drive, while not especially original per se in and of itself, nevertheless combines all of these disparate elements into a seamless whole that maybe by all rights shouldn’t work but does anyway and will not only stand the test of time but be more fully appreciated, this armchair critic strongly suspects, as the years go on (again, not unlike Manhunter and To Live And Die In L.A., which were hardly box office juggernauts in their day). It’s a heady and sometimes even disorientating mix to be sure, but for connoisseurs of cinema that’s equal parts heart, brains, and balls, it’s absolutely must-see viewing.

  1. This is a VERY good review for Drive. You’ve managed to say a lot of things I could not formulate into words for the review I wrote. I completely agree with everything you said. Drive was just so mesmerizing, and that anecdote about that lady getting pissed off because it wasn’t like the premise it seemed [fast and the furius, transporter] got my blood boiling. Anyways, fantastic review.

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