THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Most movies just play out in front of you. The best ones seem to come alive right before your eyes. They take you beyond mere sitting and watching, giving you a full-fledged experience that affects you on visual, emotional, and sensory levels. Drive is a movie like that. On the surface, it's a crime thriller, with many of the elements one would expect to find in such a picture. Few crime thrillers are done with this kind of visceral intensity, though. It has become a cliché to say that a movie sucks you in, but Drive really does.
Ryan Gosling stars as a guy never referred to by name, but called “Driver” in the press notes. He's a Hollywood stunt driver by day; by night, he's a getaway driver for hire. The man doesn't carry a gun, just simply transports criminals to their destination and helps them elude police on the way back. Always in possession of a pair of leather driving gloves, a toothpick, and a white jacket with a scorpion emblazoned on the back, he says little and generally keeps to himself. Only a few people get close to him. One of them is a garage owner named Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Another is his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young woman whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. Driver strikes up a bond with the lonely Irene and her young son Benicio. Once Standard gets out of jail, their flirtation abruptly ends. Still, when Driver learns that Standard is in debt to some very dangerous criminals who plan to hurt Irene and the boy if they aren't paid off, he agrees to drive on a million-dollar heist in exchange for a clean slate. Things don't go as planned, and Driver ends up crossing paths with a ruthless criminal named Bernie (Albert Brooks) and his right-hand man, Nino (Ron Perlman). Beyond this, I will say no more.
Most crime thrillers feel a need to have some big thing happening every second. Drive is different, in that it understands how small things can read as big. This is not a movie about a heist, but rather a movie about a guy who tries to act with altruism in a situation where those around him are acting with brutality. Driver has a double life. He works a legit job, yet also lends his talent to bad people in exchange for money. The feelings he develops for Irene and Benicio are, we presume, new to the loner. He recognizes that they are innocents, about to be pulled into a world they did not ask to join, and wants to protect them from harm. This is a powerful idea, one that underlies the story's many sudden bursts of violence and heightens the tension at every turn.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (who won the Best Director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival) paces the movie with the precision of a sports car, shifting effortlessly from one gear into the next. There are moments that begin quietly, only to erupt with action; other scenes start off more dramatically, then conclude in a surprisingly intimate way. We are kept off balance because, from minute to minute, we don't know which direction things will play out. Although Drive is largely a character study, Refn makes the action moments count. His ferociously intense style imbues every shot with a sense of menace, and allows each act of aggression committed onscreen to pack a wallop. Whereas many crime thrillers (even a lot of the good ones) take place in a near-fantasy world where nothing is ever too messy, Drive shows the horrific impact of violence. Driver's race to save Irene and Benicio becomes infinitely more urgent because of it.
This is one of Ryan Gosling's best performances. He portrays Driver with a suitably minimal approach. The character doesn't say a whole lot, but Gosling shows us what's going on inside through glances and subtle gestures. Driver is fascinating because he has a whole dichotomy going on. He displays moral deficiencies when things are impersonal, and deeply held morals when something is personal. The tenderness easily turns to viciousness, and vice versa. Gosling's performance is mostly in the eyes, so that we see wheels turning (no pun intended) even when the character is outwardly doing little. Everyone in the cast is great, but Albert Brooks also deserves special notice. Here is a man who has made his career by being hysterically funny. It's often said that humor and anger are two sides of the same coin. I don't know whether or not that's true, but I do know that Brooks achieves true menace in his role. Bernie isn't a scenery-chewing villain; instead, he's a man whose vile nature masks itself behind a facade of etiquette. You'd never expect Brooks to be capable of this, which is what makes him so captivating. The actor deserves Oscar consideration for a potentially career-changing role.
Drive works in a way few crime pictures do. Visually and tonally, it creates an atmosphere that envelops you, using creative cinematography and eclectic musical choices to accentuate the vibe. More than once, I got little chills running up my spine from the audaciousness with which Refn tells the tale. Working from a script by Hossein Amini, the director does something really extraordinary: instead of going for the typical glossy style, he goes for seedy and unsettling. In other words, he takes what could easily have been a mindless heist drama and turns it into something much deeper. There are dark thrills, for sure, and also moments of near heartbreaking emotion. Drive continually subverts your expectations. It is a daring work, an unflinching and wildly entertaining look into the soul of a man who possesses kindness and moral ambivalence in equal measure.
This is a film I will absolutely revisit again.
( out of four)
Drive is rated R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.