Review: Drive (2011)

By Jason McKiernan

Drive is a masterpiece of beautiful contradictions and clashing sensibilities. Its brilliance lies in the fusing of incongruous elements that burn slowly and meticulously into a hysteric explosion, like a masterful cinematic symphony.

Its dynamic composer is director Nicolas Winding Refn, who developed a cult following for films like Bronson (featuring an early Tom Hardy performance) and the Pusher trilogy, but whose work in this film seems to burst on the scene with fully realized force, masterfully blending showboat style with intimate character work, tender storytelling with breathtaking torrents of violence. Drive’s ad campaign is littered with bright neon colors and throwback cursive title design, and is permeated with an old-fashioned white-knuckle tone. That sensibility is fused with the film’s DNA, and yet Refn probes deeper than the purposeful kitsch of its surface style. Contrasts become a hallmark of the film’s form – the first two acts smolder and build, with simultaneous inward calm and sneaking dread, to a third act that explodes with shocking brutality. Even individual scenes unfold with equal parts serene beauty and jarring aggression.

The film’s tone is dictated by its protagonist, a character known only as “The Driver” (Ryan Gosling), who is himself an inherently contradictory character. Our hero pulls triple duty as a Hollywood stunt driver, small-time mechanic, and occasionally as a wheelman for criminals of varying significance. He conducts himself with quiet contemplation, only choosing to speak when explaining his rules to potential criminal clients. “If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place,” he explains. “I give you a five-minute window…anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. I drive.”

The Driver embarks upon a tentative relationship with tender hints of romance with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), who herself is living a bit of a contradiction – she would seem to be a single mother struggling to provider for her young son, but in fact her husband (Oscar Isaac) is in prison for an undisclosed crime. She is empathetic to our hero, perhaps because they share a certain disdain for the crime that has become an inevitable part of their lives.

This sweet central relationship operates parallel to a seedy heist that slowly builds out of unexpected necessity – yet another of the film’s innate contrasts. I am being purposefully vague to avoid any sort of spoilers, because the film only gets richer as it delves into the plight of these characters. The crime plot grows increasingly complicated but is presented with total simplicity, unfolding with clarity and resolve by Refn, working from a screenplay by Hossein Amini (based on a book by James Sallis). Potential danger is established early, not only in the form of Irene’s husband, who returns from prison with unpaid debts, but also in the form of Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a former B-movie producer who now oversees a criminal underground run out of a rundown pizza shack owned by Nino (Ron Perlman), who is into some backdoor business of his own.

Refn allows the film to unfold purely according to his lead character, who is content to quietly fulfill his role as a silent standoffish presence…until provoked into action when the only thing he cares about is threatened. The Driver is so mysterious that no one fully knows what he is capable of; the film holds the audience in a similar riveted grasp, unsure of what lies around the corner, but captivated by the cards Refn vividly and gorgeously allows us to see. Visceral carnage fills the screen for much of the film’s third act, much of it shocking precisely because the film so carefully builds to that point. Refn’s slow burn allows the film – like its main character – a certain solemn contemplation. We soak up the power of a simple glance, the beauty of every fleeting moment of human interaction, for the proceeding inhumanity shatters that delicate fabric. The ultimate shift takes place in a scene that defines the entire film in miniature, where, in an elegant, slow-motion sequence, the Driver stands in an elevator, his innocent love interest in one corner, a sinister hitman in the other. In this simple sequence, our hero’s romantic and violent impulses overflow almost at once, underlying the film’s purposeful contradictions – the beauty of serenity invaded by the necessity of survival, encased in a sumptuous stylistic shell.

It broods with noir-ish intensity. It thumps to a retro-chic beat. And yet it focuses keenly on the intimacy of a character capable of heinous violence, who would rather spend a slow day at the creek with the woman he loves. Drive is a classic – inescapable, inimitable, and forever indelible.

98/100 - Drive is a masterpiece of vividly realized contradictions – a brilliantly stylized character study, a brutally violent love story, a slow-burning noir thriller of bright, neon-lit beauty.

Sr. Staff Film Critic & Awards Pundit: I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.