Let’s Go for a Drive

Just your typical afternoon Drive...

What are you going to do?

Hey, Ryan Gosling!  Here’s the scoop, friend.  You’re a low-rent stunt driver for Hollywood.  When not flipping over cars, you’re working in a body shop for that old guy (Bryan Cranston) who’s helped you out like you were his own son.  You moonlight for criminals (giving them five minutes and five minutes only) driving getaway cars under strict rules that keep your record clean.
In step some shady characters looking to invest in drag racing.  There’s the Jewish Pizza shop guy (Ron Perlman – thuggishly good) and Mr. Money Bags (Albert Brooks – slow to menace).  Hey, slow down, here’s the deal.  The old guy builds and sells them a custom car – and, that’s right – you just might get to be the driver.  This might be your ticket out!
But then you meet a swell gal (Carey Mulligan – cute as a button and donning a hairstyle that would fit Naomi Watts circa Mulholland Drive) who turns out to be your neighbor, a waitress, and single mom to a neat kid (Kaden Leos) who knows a bad guy when he sees ’em.  Turns out her hubbie (Oscar Isaac) is in jail.  Just as she’s gettin’ all sweet on ya, he gets out.  But guess what?  He’s actually a nice guy just hard on his luck.  You wanna be his friend – for her – for the kid’s sake.
Your new friend has some bad guys after him – looking to shake him down for protection they gave him while in the slammer.  They beat him up.  They threaten his wife and kid – the wife and kid you want to take care of no matter what.  Seems like all he has to do is rob a pawn shop and they’ll leave him alone forever once the money is in their hands.  You agree to drive the getaway car.  Ah – here’s a wrench in the plan for ya – along for the ride is Trouble with a capital T in the form of Something Sexy played by Christina Hendricks (who fills out full-bodied white-trash trouble with the same figure she uses to fill 1960’s hubba-hubba secretaries’ skirts on TV’s Mad Men). 
Suffice it say – shit goes down.  It was a set-up.  You’re on the hook.  You got a million bucks in your trunk.  People are dead.  And you got bad dudes after you, man.  Your sweet gal and her little boy are just as much a target as you. 
What are you going to do?
Drive is full-throttle neo-noir to the core.  The screenplay from Hossein Amini (adapted from the book by James Sallis) is highlighted by sparse dialogue (with a few well placed great lines) and existential character moods.  The film is propelled by the excellent work of composer Cliff Martinez (hitting his stride coming off of Contagion) who applies a minimalist approach that acts like the tick-tock of a clock, heightening tension when needed, and then lifting the mood with carefully placed new-wave pop-rock songs with techno beats. 
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (previously unheard of on American shores) isn’t afraid of long silences, building momentum and juxtaposing the lovely with the profane (witness a death by shower rod – or better yet – that head crunching violence following a transcendental first kiss in the soon to be famous elevator scene).  He’s out to shock you – symbolically.  And he amps up the violence as much as he winds it down – ending the film in a brutal scene transmuted almost completely through shadows on a black top.
Refn borrows liberally from the works of Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, Fritz Lang and David Lynch – most notably presenting a view of Los Angeles that is like some mystical futuristic view of a metropolis dreamed-up by some lonesome renegade cowboys lost in the desert on the run from the law.  At times, Drive is as much a Western as it is a Noir.  But he whips it up into a style all his own.
Ultimately, like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive – this is a love story in the city of dreams where everyone plays their part.  At one point, Gosling dons a mask he wore as a stunt driver to take out one very bad dude in what is possibly the most chilling scene ever filmed on a California beach.  But it’s just one role of many for this actor.
Refn seems to be telling us that only a select few get to play the hero.  Some actors, like the nameless schlub who got his head smashed to bits in an elevator, were born to remain nameless and have their heads smashed to bits in an elevator. Some actors, like Cranston or Hendricks, might reign supreme on television but were born to play character bits on film.  Some actors, like Albert Brooks, try to reinvent themselves by scaring the shit out of us.  Some actors, like Gosling and Mulligan, are destined for super-stardom.  What role will you play?
Well, you gotta have the guts to take a Drive every now and then to find out.
Since its release, Drive has been all the buzz on the blogosphere and has become compulsory viewing for any film buff worth their salt.  Here’s the spin on some of the best lurking out there:
  • James Hansen has penned an arresting character study over at Out 1 Film Journal.
  • Jake Cole offers up his usual round of well-studied commentary at Not Just Movies.
  • Aiden R. offers up his typical wit and no-nonsense at Cut the Crap Movie Reviews.
  • Mike Maguire has delivered an authoritative look at the film’s reductive stylism at The Defeatist Completist.
  • Right on the money, as always, is Roger Ebert.
  • At Being Ephesus, Dianne Glave makes a compelling argument for Driver as a Christ-figure.
  • Good pal Prakash at Talking Talkies concludes the film has something for everyone yet belongs to no one.
  • Meanwhile at Pop-Break.com, two polarizing reviews are offered up in praise and in hate.
  • And then there’s Craig Kennedy, pulling a u-turn on his original assessment at Living in Cinema.

What did you think of the film?


  1. When my brother and I were kids growing up in Queens, New York our main outlet, besides family dinners and life with the huge extended family, was going to the movies. And when both of us took film 101 (transitioned from MOVIES to FILM!) in college we became professional film critics, really snobs, talking about mise-en-scène, slow fade to black, and montages. A little education does alotta damage. So it’s no surprise he called last night and was all ga ga over Drive. I’ll have to check it out myself.

    Dianne – I love your line “a little education does alotta damage.” I credit my dad for raising me to be a film buff, buy after those two film classes I took in college – oh, hell hath no fury like a kid watching a movie for the lighting! I can’t wait to hear what you think about this. –DHS

  2. Thanks for the plug, David, and great review!

    I’m very glad I watched Valhalla Rising before watching this, as it clued me in to some of Refn’s approaches, chiefly his inventive, overarching mash-up of high- and lowbrow films of antithetical styles and thematic statements to make something more ambiguous. I’ve been somewhat disappointed in those who have defined the film solely by its references, as not only does that sidestep just how striking Refn’s direction and modulation of tension is, it tends to view each influence as some distinct entity to be shucked and discarded before moving on to the next, ignoring how well Refn combines aspects of each into something that is, admittedly, abstract enough to be as off-putting as it is invitingly interpretive. But to see the damp-wallpaper agony of In the Mood for Love tossed amid a clarification of Michael Mann’s moral and stylistic evolution made for something as thrilling as it was baffling.

    At my blog, you mentioned Mulligan being perfect for conveying innocence and so forth, but that is kind of what irks me. She doesn’t display the baggage of what has been a tough life. I’m not asking her to be haggard or anything, but I think her cherubic dimples are a bit too unbelievable, and I found myself wishing Hendricks, who was under-used yet looked like the sort of person who’d be caught up against her will in some awful crime racket, all tacky makeup and filled-out form (though obviously she’s still gorgeous). I do think, however, that Mulligan provides an excellent bouncing-off point for Gosling, and I think on that we’re more or less in agreement. It just frustrates me that, even waking up the next morning to write my review, I couldn’t remember a damn thing she said other than “Benicio had a good time,” and that primarily because that’s the title for one of the tracks on the (amazing) soundtrack. Really, I just wish she had more of a presence than existing really to deepen either Gosling or Isaac; Refn wanted to dabble in his feminine side (he’s said so himself), but his female character is frustratingly empty.

    Nevertheless, despite how much that sort of thing peeves me in general, it really didn’t detract too much from Drive’s pull on me, and I’ve already got plans to see it again, and probably to write a much longer review, though I’ll probably hold onto that until home video (I want to do a post solely on its opening and obviously need a DVD for screencaps). It’s certainly the best-directed action movie of the year, and I say that having adored Joe Wright’s stylistic orgy Hanna and Joe Johnston’s classical, Spielbergian approach to Captain America. I’ve loved Gosling for years but he’s never looked more like a star, and Albert Brooks is almost certainly going to end up my yearly pick for the one thing that could actually win an Oscar that I want to very badly.

    Jake – I disagree again about Mulligan. There were hints of her wild youth and baggage when Standard told Benicio and Driver the story of how they met. And then there was that great line when she was sitting in the hallway with the music coming from her apartment. Gosling comes out and she apologizes for the noise. He jokes that he was going to call the cops, to which she replies, “I wish you would.” Like with so many aspects of the film, there was SOOOO MUCH revealed in so little. I think you have underestimated her character and her performance. Buy, yeah, man – we’re on the same page overall. Great film. –DHS

  3. David we are in complete agreement here. I just saw this today and I thought it was a very good movie (A- range). None of it would be possible without Gosling’s quiet, but intense performance. He doesn’t have a lot of lines, but you can always see what he’s thinking in his eyes.It’s a remarkable performance. Coincidentally, I also saw Crazy, Stupid, Love today and he was great in that as well for completely different reasons.

    The casting is so good. Carey Mulligan is one of my favorite young actresses. Albert Brooks is surprisingly creepy. (What is it about comedians making great villains?) I think Oscar Isaac is also worthy of a mention. He’s so great because you aren’t sure what to make of him at first. I was a little nervous it was going to go with a cliched jealousy fit, but this is a better movie than that.

    Definitely worth seeing.

    Jason – good point there about Isaac – both with regards to his character and his performance. Refn and his writers turned every standard expectation on its head with this film and the cast all made the most of their “reduced” parts – a well placed piece of dialogue, small glances, sly smiles – so much “character” revealed with so little. –DHS

  4. The very best reviews always seem to be written when one is just coming down from the experience. Your own excitement is translated in your amazing insightful prose here, and I am with you on this film lock, stock and barrel. Great that you mentioned the electrifying work of Cliff Martinez, whose combination of minimalism and new wave pop makes for a stunning audio underpinning. Gosling is amazing, Brooks and Mulligan are excellent, and the visual poetry enhances the emotional heft. It’s a tone poem for sure, and all your reference points are dead-on. Bravo.

    Thanks, Sam. Now a day removed, the film still holds weight, and I’ve been enjoying all the conversations going on at various blogs/sites concerning the movie. –DHS

  5. Great review! You caught some pertinent points and references that I missed.

    And Albert Brooks did completely creep me out by the end.

    Thanks, Julio! Yes, Brooks’ performance was an excellent slow build to creepy insanity. –DHS

  6. I think Carey Mulligan’s almost angelic presence in the film is most effective as a stark contrast to those around her. Like she’s put there on purpose as a figure of grace, playing a ‘redemptive’ role to both her husband and the Driver as well. I’m a great fan of CM, and think her mere presence here in this film, yes, just that ethereal dimple, says a lot. In the dark underworld of drugs, gangs, violence and crimes, she stands out as a tiny source of purity… the opposite of a femme fatale figure. As the Driver says at the end, she has changed his life, even though she hasn’t ‘done’ anything or says much. I can think of one other example of such a figure of grace and that’s Jeanne in Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’ (1959).

    Arti – good call with the Pickpocket comparison! You’re the first I’ve seen draw that line of connection. I think I like it! –DHS

    • Thanks to your reply, it’s an encouragement indeed. As a result, I have expanded my comment into a post, discussing both Pickpocket and Drive. You might be interested to take a look.

      Arti – I look forward to reading it. –DHS

    • Thanks David, for adding my review on your list. I really did like this movie (atleast most of it), and am glad it had an almost simultaneous release in India.

      Prakash – speaking of release schedules in India – are you guys ever getting The Tree of Life? I’m glad to hear this one made it to your shores sooner rather than later. I imagine the minimalism of this crosses cultures more easily than some other “art” films. –DHS

      • David – The Tree of Life did release a couple of weeks back in just one theater for just one show and it was removed after just one week. Unfortunately, I missed it. I am now waiting for the DVD release and will watch it at a friend’s home theater. You just might see the review one of these days 🙂

        Prakash – Ah, cruel fate! –DHS

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