Shifting Into “Drive”

Courtesy of FilmDistrict

Action. Crooks. Fast cars. Heists. Romance. These may sound like key ingredients for “The Fast and the Furious” series, but “Drive” has them too, and yet is far beyond that franchise. It’s a film that caters to both art house cinephiles and action movie fans, and delivers beyond their wildest expectations. It gleefully bends genres and promises a rare cinematic experience.

For Driver (Ryan Gosling), the only life he knows is behind the wheel and on the road. A stunt driver for Hollywood pictures and car mechanic by day, he steers getaway vehicles for armed heists at night. He’s a man of few words and even fewer friends.

Despite his lonesome nature, he falls in love with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother who coaxes his hidden, warm nature out. Unfortunately, her life is put on the line when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns from a stint in prison. He owes a large amount of money to some criminals, and the only way to pay it off is to partake in a heist of a pawn shop. Driver, wanting to protect Irene, offers to help him. However, things take a turn for the worst, and he soon finds out that – in spite his experience – there really are no easy getaways.

It’s certainly not a stretch to say that the film belongs in the action genre, as the car chase and heist sequences are among the best that this critic has ever seen. Nevertheless, it’s rather legitimate to call “Drive” an art house film, especially when considering its fairly low budget and focus on characters.

Perhaps the genre that best fits “Drive” is neo-noir, which refers to the crime dramas and mysteries produced from the mid-1960s to the present that, while shot in color, feature the common plots and themes from the 1940s to 1950s black-and-white film noir films. Driver certainly reflects the brooding, lone wolves often portrayed in those films of old, and the overall mood of the film is melancholy and somber. The setting of Los Angeles is an underworld of violent crime, where mob thugs like Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) thrive.

Though the story is relatively predictable, it never fails to captivate from start to finish. The atmosphere is established extremely well, and the climax and tension slowly but satisfyingly continues to mount. While not much is known or told about Driver, we quickly become invested in his tremendous, violent journey.

What’s amazing about the film is the lack of background given to us about the characters, yet their behavior and dialogue more often than not tell us all we need to know. In a darkly comic scene, when Bernie tells Nino, “Now you’ve got to clean up after my mess,” we understand through this simple statement that the former has spent much of his life exasperatingly cleaning up Nino’s rash actions.

In the year of Ryan Gosling (though Michael Fassbender appears to giving him a run for his money), the man himself again shows why he’s considered to be one of the best young actors at the moment. Evoking Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood’s “The Man with No Name,” he oozes cool and reveals Driver not through dialogue, but rather facial expressions and mannerisms.

The supporting cast is superb as well. Irene’s personality is told through Mulligan’s manipulation of her eyes and mouth. Further kudos to Bryan Cranston, who brings much charisma to the role of Shannon, Driver’s friend and boss.

However, the best performances come from those playing the antagonists. Brooks perfectly balances Bernie’s affable, public persona with his cold threatening one when the character deals with business. Perlman seems to enjoy his role, as he delivers his sleazy lines with relish.

The car chases in “Drive” are nothing short of exhilarating. The pre-credits sequence alone is adrenaline-pumping, as Driver evades police cruisers and a helicopter using his knowledge of the streets and wits. Such scenes are exquisitely edited and shot; they are easy to follow in that there are literally no blurs, and the camera is able to capture steady shots. Furthermore, there appears to be almost no use of CGI at all, which is even more remarkable.

The cinematography in “Drive” flawlessly complements and enhances the mood. There are several moments, particularly when Driver is steering a car, when any trace of a human voice is drowned out in favor of music and the sounds of being out on the road. Here, the camera is employed in angles where his isolation becomes much more apparent.

The soundtrack, consisting of the original, throbbing score by Cliff Martinez and songs by a wide range of artists including Kavinsky and Chromatics, serve as perfect extensions of what the characters are feeling. The music is especially effective in scenes of thrill and violence — each beat exemplifies the screeching of tires, the breaking of fingers and the blast of a shotgun.

The film is definitely not for the faint of heart, or the squeamish. Violence is not limited to punches or knife stabs, so expect to see heads being blown apart and sprays of dark-red blood.

Whether you go into “Drive” with the expectations of an action movie or an art film, prepare to be blown away. With its nail-biting story, excellent cast and electrifying action, this is a film that takes you on one hell of a ride and doesn’t let you off until it’s over.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars