Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn – review

Drive made me feel like I was thirteen again.

I came out of the theater wanting to go right back in and watch it again. I want to buy the soundtrack and play my favorite tracks over and over. I want to tell everybody I know to see it. If someone tells me they didn’t like it it’s gonna take a lot for me not to call them a fuckin retard. I want to check around at all my local movie theaters to see if one of them will sell me their hugest Drive poster. I want to find a sweet fucking scorpion jacket like Gosling rocks in the film. Fuck, I want to practice walking like Ryan Gosling does in the film. It’s not just that I think I Drive is great: it’s that I think it’s the coolest fucking thing on the planet right now.

Clearly this is not going to be the Nerd’s most rational review. Like I said, this is thirteen year old Nerd right now, the kid who debated growing his hair out like John Travolta’s in Pulp Fiction, for christ’s sake. And yeah, I figured I’d like this movie a good deal. It was based on a great novel, it was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn of Pusher Trilogy fame, and I am a huge fan of Gosling, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks. But I didn’t expect to fucking groove on this shit, to love it instinctually and almost inexplicably, like your favorite painting or poem. But though explaining my religious fervor for Drive feels like it’s gonna take a lot outta me, let the Nerd take a strong fucking swing at it.

From what you might’ve seen of ads and commercials, you might think you have an idea of what Drive is. Lots of car chases, shoot-outs, some fun Hollywood stuff, and a breathless pace. Sounds like a perfectly good movie to me, but that ain’t Drive. The film opens with Gosling taking a getaway driver gig, and holy fucking shit is it fantastic. It’s one of the most clever, suspenseful and surprising car chase sequences ever filmed – but in none of the ways you expect. There are no big explosions, not even any fender benders, just some slick driving and the chatter of Gosling’s police scanner. It’s one for the ages, dear reader, with The Chromatics “Tick of the Clock” on the soundtrack making it really hit you in the balls.

But instead of riding that wave of palpable energy, Refn slows it down, lets us into Driver’s routine and existence, starting with the opening credits sequence. He drives around L.A. listening to music, looking comfortable at the wheel, then comes to his apartment, looks around the poorly lit room, turns around and leaves. He’s back on the street, just driving around. This is a lonely guy in an unfeeling place, L.A. looking as stark and cold as anything Michael Mann’s ever shot in the city.

From there we just watch him do mechanic work for Bryan Cranston, Cranston also hooking him up with non-descript cars for getaways and working as an agent of sorts for Gosling’s movie stunt driving. Cranston’s big dream is to own a stock car and take Gosling around as the driver, shady Albert Brooks, a local crime boss partnered with Ron Perlman, helping Cranston finance that dream. But whether any of this truly turns Gosling’s crank is a mystery, his face never showing much emotion beyond indifference.

That is, anyway, until he meets Carey Mulligan’s character. A waitress neighbor of his with a small boy and a husband in prison, Mulligan just has that perfect, vulnerable face that you can project all of your dreams on. In fact, one fault I find with the film is that she carries herself with a bit too much grace and intelligence to truly portray a girl in her sad situation, but her quiet need and adorable face leave little question as to why Gosling’s character would come to be so fiercely protective of her and her son later in the film.

So their sex-less but palpable romance takes up a good portion of the first half of the film, lots of montages and longing looks, the film taking its time to make us care about them but never expressing anything outright, Refn using his gift for visual storytelling to lull us into an easy rhythm. Then Mulligan’s husband Standard is released from prison and is already in trouble, connected guys who he paid to protect him in prison come calling on him to do a heist for them, leaving his son little Benicio with a bullet and a promise to return if doesn’t do the job.

Gosling works out a deal to be the driver on the heist if it means Standard and his family are left alone, but naturally things go to shit with a bloody bang during the robbery. It’s from here on that we see why Gosling was so shy and gentle with Mulligan and her son, why he always seemed to be trying to resist the attachment to them before being helplessly drawn in: it’s because he’s a fucking psycho monster of pure violence. Benicio and Mulligan are the only pure friends he has in his life other than the shifty Cranston, and he will crush skulls without a second thought to keep them safe. The parallels to Taxi Driver, another movie a driving quiet psycho with a white knight savior fetish, are unmistakable.

It is also this robbery that shows why Refn kept things so quiet for the first half of the film (following the prologue, anyway), in that when the violence happens the audience no-shit jumps. This is some brutal shit, dear reader, some of the nastiest and hard-hitting violence I’ve ever seen in a mainstream, thousand-some theater release movie. Instead of Drive they could have just as easily called this fucker Stab…or maybe Stomp.

But even though from here the movie gets into more traditional crime movie territory, this is still not the summer actioner you might have predicted. There’s one more car chase sequence, but it’s short and efficient, not an upturned fruit stand or explosion in sight. There’s plenty of horrific violence, but only one actual action sequence. Even the final “big” confrontations are surprisingly down-played. The tension is always there, but never in a rushed, break-neck, ticking clock sort of way.

So, you’re probably thinking right now, dear reader (if you’ve even made it this far into this fucking self-important opus, that is), is if it’s a slow, meditative movie without the usual pay-offs of a good crime movie, what exactly has the Nerd so fucking jazzed up about this film? Well, dear reader, for me it was, like a great car, all about style and performance with Drive.

Let’s first talk about style, something Refn has always had in fucking spades. His Bronson was like a hyper-violent Kubrick film, his Valhalla Rising a hyper-violent Malick film and Drive is his hyper-violent Michael Mann movie, only – and I’m expecting a lot of geek backlash on this – I’d say it’s better than anything Mann has ever done. Specifically, this is paying homage to Mann’s eighties output like Manhunter and Thief. From the eighties-style synth-y soundtrack to the cool color template to the contrast-y LA highways and cityscapes, this is one Mann-ly film. (Much as I hate groan-inducing puns, I’m kinda proud of that one.)

But this is not merely one big Mann nob-slobbering of a movie – Refn’s got all kinds of other things on his mind in Drive. The sweetness of the romance juxtaposed with the brutality of the violence makes for a dizzyingly schizophrenic movie, the “first kiss” scene late in the film one of the most transcendentally beautiful and disgustingly shocking of all time. But despite the underlying insanity of the film, the unfiltered badassery of Refn’s command of different film speeds matched with his knack for incorporating his score and source music choices into the film really make the film fucking hum with Jean-Pierre Melville-ian levels of coolness.

And Gosling is his perfect muse, maybe even more so (dare I say it?) than Mads Mikkelsen. Gosling puts his usual Method actor tics (which I am a fan of normally) on mute and lets everything play out with his his stony eyes and amazing physicality (it’s a movie about driving, yes, but it all comes down to the dude’s fucking sweet walk, like I said a thousand words ago). Here’s a guy who can look cool even with brains all over his face – replace his signature toothpick with a cigarette and you’ve got Alain Delon in Le Samorai.

But though it’s clearly Gosling’s movie, you’ve also got great, charming work from Cranston as the loveably seedy mechanic Shannon and a bizarrely menacing bad guy turn from Albert Brooks. There’s always been a neurotic intensity to Brooks that made even something like his great romantic comedy Modern Romance more scarily unnerving than romantic, but Refn lets him be fearsome without his usual impotent loud rants. Shit, if you ever said told me that I’d be more scared of Brooks in a movie than Ron Perlman I’d normally tell you to go fuck yourself but in Drive? Holy shit.

But though hopefully from all this ranting and raving you’ve gotten some idea about my love for this film, I still don’t think I’ve fully captured my experience. Drive is a beautiful dream that turns nightmarish though never loses its woozy romanticism and never becomes lucid, never lets you have the slightest control or awareness of where you’re going. I hope you’ll submit to to it’s undeniable pull and let it flood your senses. Just remember to buckle up or you might just get your nose broken.

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Nerd of Noir

I love crime/noir fiction, comics and movies. I think my opinions are web-worthy. Then again, what asshole doesn't think that their opinions deserve a blog?

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5 comments for “Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn – review

  1. September 24, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    I been telling anyone who will listen about PUSHER, since I first saw it. And I still have not met anyone who has seen it. Their loss. Sorry Nerd, but I didn’t much of your review, and once you mentioned PUSHER. it was all I needed to know. Can’t wait to see DRIVE.

  2. Patti Abbott
    September 25, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Your review is a thing of beauty too.

  3. monique
    September 25, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Refn is a man whose got real chops. The Pusher trilogy is some of the best crime film stuff of late (in the 2000’s). All are good but #2, with the great Mads Mikkelson as the protagonist was just brilliant.

    Bronson was crazy. I loved the great Tom Hardy. That man should’ve won an oscar for that roll. It’s one of those films that no amount of explaining can even scratch the surface. It’s strange and wonderful and super violent.

    I couldn’t finish watching Valhala Rising… even with my love for Mads Mikkelson. Wow that was just too much violence for moi.

    Drive is great. I particularly loved how he managed to make L.A. seem like a new city, one we haven’t seen before. Great casting too… although Carey Mulligan was out of place and not believable as a Dennys waitress in downtown L.A. And hey, I love Ryan Gosling but don’t be comparing him to the incomparable Alain Delon. There’s no comparison in any respect IMO… as a girl and as a film critic. But Ryan does do laconic very well and I totally bought him as that strange, damaged man-with-no-name whose violent nature just bubbles below the surface.

    I just started reading your reviews, Nerd. Good stuff!

  4. September 26, 2011 at 12:17 am

    enjoyed the review as much as the movie.

  5. September 27, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Before I read or heard anything about this film beyond the artwork and official publicity, I wasn’t interested.
    Then the reviews turned me right off it.
    But now… – you’ve piqued my curiosity – varied pace, the intelligence, the style – I’m now wavering.

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