I don’t usually come away from a movie thinking “instant classic.” Usually those labels are tried out on movies that don’t come near earning them. It’s not necessarily a good movie that is a classic. A classic is the kind of movie that people will watch in years to come for reasons outside of entertainment. But the rest of us will watch it for entertainment. Drive (2011) is an instant classic.
We meet the Driver (Ryan Gosling) on the kind of job that must constitute the bulk of his income. He drives. Shannon (Bryan Cranston) runs the garage and seeks financial support from gangsters, Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), to buy a stock car (with the Driver as driver). The Driver then meets and begins a relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), comes back from jail and falls right into trouble. Then things start getting tense.
I think two things throughout this movie: (1) this movie is beautiful and (2) Ryan Gosling is awesome. The idea that this movie was only nominated for sound editing is absurd. The visuals in this film are probably the best I’ve ever seen. I’m stumbling for ways to describe how great this movie looked and the pictures I’m finding don’t come near to the experience.
In this movie, Ryan Gosling reminds me of the younger Marlon Brando. When I saw this in theaters, I realized that he was something special. Add in Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) and The Ides of March (2011), and you’ve got three excellent performances in two excellent (and one mediocre) movies. His performance in this movie is so understated while also incredibly powerful. I was just blown away.
The Driver is a kind of loner. He comes into this movie completely unknown without any back-story. The features on the blu-ray I bought all talk about the Driver having a code–not dissimilar to that of The Transporter (2002)–but I didn’t see that in the movie. At least, not in the sense of a moral code or anything plotted or thought through. He’s very much in the moment at all times.
His actions conform neatly to a structured, conservative values system (except for the killing, of course), but there isn’t any judgment. He doesn’t act because it’s right or not, it’s just who he is. It’s like he’s an alien who sees everything and understands everything, but there’s no values attached to it. Except when it comes to Irene and Benicio. For a movie to be great, there can be little left to take out and the Driver’s interaction with Benicio is an absolutely necessary part of the movie.
The rest of the cast is excellent as well (they just weren’t given such a powerful character). Carey Mulligan is very good as the slightly vulnerable love interest. Oscar Isaac stuns us with a character that should have been a punk into somebody that almost deserved the whole movie. Bryan Cranston was spectacular as the Driver’s only real friend and confidant.
But the runaway winner of the non-Gosling acting competition had to be Albert Brooks. He was handed a great character–almost as great as the Driver himself–with complexity and humanity. This guy is basically a nice guy, but he’ll do whatever needs to be done. It’s really just too bad that his job has to include cleaning up messes by killing people.
A part of that is also directing. Nicolas Winding Refn did a fantastic job. When every performance is strong, either it’s great direction or casting or both. He’s got that and an incredibly strong visual instinct. That doesn’t usually go together. But in this movie, because there is relatively little dialogue, the physical performance fills the frame.
I will say there are a lot of personal checkboxes ticked in this movie for me. Faces are better than words. Violence taken very seriously. Solid musical choices. No contrivance (or very very few contrivances). They’re all there and they all cohere exactly with my tastes.
A word on the music. On my first viewing, the music struck me as very strange. I had a similar experience with Hanna (2011). I suspect that 80’s infused electronic pop is going to be something of a trend for the next couple of years. It’s always dangerous to use conspicuous music because it has the greatest chance of becoming dated.
Look at Chariots of Fire (1981). There’s a movie that I think is fantastic, though I understand many disagree, and also has a phenomenal soundtrack. The problem is that they use these electronic sounds rather than a typical orchestra. That is a double sin for marring great music and dating a period piece–that might even be a triple sin, I can’t be sure.
If you’ve heard anything about this movie, you’ve probably also heard that it was very violent. Well, that’s true. The MPAA calls it “strong brutal bloody violence” and they’ve got it just right. The combination of the three makes the violence pretty disturbing and if you’ve got an aversion to violence, then this will be a struggle for you. I’m pretty desensitized to film violence, being a young American man, and I was pretty shocked a number of times.
What also makes the violence intense is the surrounding intensity of the movie. Every second is filled with tension. Then, when the string of violent events happens, it still doesn’t relent. Personally, I find that exhilarating. If you’re not caught up in the movie, you’re not paying attention. The level of focus it inspired in me, and I suspect others, also adds to the apparent intensity of the violence. Watching some of the features, when violent scenes came up, they just looked sick. But in the movie, it’s something more than that.
If this movie is going to become the classic I know it to be, then we’re going to have to work on this cover. I recommend a variation on this: