...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Drive (the film)

This review is biased from the start.  I love LA noir stories.  I love synth soundtracks.  I love the stillness in great European cinema.  I love aerial photography of Los Angeles at night.  I love gradual buildups of suspense and dread.  DRIVE hits all of these notes with confidence and ease.

It's a tale about an unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling), a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a independently contracted robbery getaway driver.  He falls in love with his cute neighbor, Irene (Cary Mulligan), and her son.  But once he vows to help her ex-con husband get out of financial trouble, he's pulled into an abyss of crime and murder.

Whomever thought that the Academy was going to line this film's shelf with statues was kidding themselves.  This is a genre piece.  It's honed, sculpted, and crafted beautifully, nailing every genre mark with a cold heavy hammer.  But it's still a genre piece with no unnecessary flash nor cloying bathos.  The good news is that it was relatively successful with its box office receipts.  So maybe we'll see more of its like in the future.

Now who's kidding himself?

Gosling is great as the McQueen-meets-Eastwood meets-Hella-Handsome driver.  He emotes very little, but it's there in subtle shadings.  Mulligan is solid in an underwritten role -- though that's a quirk with the noir genre, the best female roles are always for the femme fatales and Irene is the furthest thing from the Deadly Lady.  Ron Perlman is unnerving in a grandiose simian way as one-half of a Jewish mobster team.  The other half of that team is played by Albert Brooks who hits every aspect of his character perfectly.  For those of you who always wanted to see Albert Brooks get his murderer on, here's your chance.

But it's the exemplary technics that boost this film the most.  After the opening, about forty-five minutes pass with nary an action sequence, though its suspense grip tightens and crackles like leather gloves on a steering wheel.  When the action does erupt over the entire second half of the film, it's directed and edited so clearly that's it a bit startling.  Even the very first sequence, a robbery getaway, the viewer can follow every single thing that's going on.  No tricky editing, no weird angles.  It just plays out with a (now) rare cinematic clarity, with the same cool grace of the Driver.

Of course, the flip side of having such steadily designed action means that every drop of blood (and brain) is on display.  After bemoaning cinematic violence last week, I do have to say that this film is REALLY GORY.  I can't really state with certainty the stylistic need to show crushed heads, but it doesn't come as much of a surprise from the director of PUSHER, BRONSON, and VALHALLA RISING.

That element aside, Nicolas Winding Refn does a tremendous job here.  There's a calm but precise style that runs throughout this film which he holds firmly throughout.  Its running time of 100 minutes is perfect too, getting into the story then getting out much quicker than 99% of the other films onscreen this year.

And then there's the elevator scene.

Cinema has had plenty of action/suspense scenes in elevators.  But none has ever been like DRIVE's. It pirouettes from nerve-rattling suspense to surprising delicate romance to action to gory horror all within 120 seconds.  None of it feels overdone, every piece is perfectly in place and dazzlingly executed.  'Executed' being the key word.  And it all shows (not tells, there isn't a word spoken) a necessary series of beats for the story; things will never be the same for these characters after it's over.  Style intertwined with storytelling, the heart of cinema.

I recommend DRIVE to folks who can take seeing some serious violence.  And if you like the noir genre, then this is your jam.  Think Steve McQueen in LE SAMOURAI with more emotion and the lights of Los Angeles gleaming like stars in the moral darkness.