Today was the end of my summer holiday from the day job. Also the start of the downward slope as I begin the slide towards December 31st 2012. Yesterday was the end of the beginning and today is the beginning of the end. I wonder what that sounds like in Latin.
Gentlemen, don your scorpion jackets.
A mechanic and part-time stunt driver (and occasional getaway driver) finds his carefully cultivated life of isolation coming apart when he starts a tentative relationship with his pretty neighbour. When her husband gets home from prison with a debt to settle, The Driver quickly becomes the centre of the wrong people’s attention; a situation he does not relish.
It is about damn time, isn’t it? Six months ago, I made a list of my top 11 films of 2011 and at the end of it I mentioned eleven other flicks that I believed might have made that list had I seen them in time. Drive is the one I was most looking forward to. Let’s just get the suspense out of the way, shall we? It did not disappoint.
For anyone recently emerged from the rock they spent the last year under, Drive is an adaptation of the 2005 novel by James Sallis, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan
McNeely Gosling (sorry, force of habit) as The Driver. The film is an art house character piece under the guise of an action movie; a portrait of a man who does only one thing, but does it exceptionally well. The Driver seems to come alive only when behind the wheel, whether it’s evading the police after a robbery, or rolling a cop car for the latest Hollywood blockbuster. In the rest of his life he merely exists, going through the motions. When he meets his neighbour Irene and her son Benicio you can see something come to life in his eyes. Being around them – even just seeing them – is the only time he smiles. When he tells her near the end that meeting her was the best thing that ever happened to him, you believe it. It really is a powerhouse performance from McNeely Gosling (dammit), made all the more impressive by the fact that he is on screen for all but maybe three minutes of the movie, yet his lines could probably fit on the back of a napkin.
Gosling has received all the plaudits, but to me the unsung hero of Drive is Newton Thomas Sigel, the cinematographer. This is one of the most visual films I can remember for quite a while. That may sound like a bit of a moronic thing to say, but how many films do you know that have such a sparsity of dialogue but you are never in any doubt about what is happening and why. Just look at the elevator scene for a prime example. This next bit will be a spoiler if you haven’t seen it, but if you have waited this long then you are even more of an idiot than me and you don’t deserve the warning. But anyway, Driver can see that the man in the elevator has a gun in a sholder holster, and he knows that the bad guys will be coming for him. What does he do? He delicately moves Irene into the corner behind him then turns around and kisses her. It is their first kiss (on screen, anyway) and also their last. She might not know it yet but he is saying goodbye. By moving her into the corner he is protecting her, shielding her body with his own then, with a ferocity that makes the motel room look like a kid’s birthday party, he strikes against the gunman, throwing him to the floor and raining blows against his head until the guy has no head left to pound. The final shot of the sequence is Irene looking back into the elevator car with the underground garage stretching out behind her, looking back at this man she was maybe beginning to love with fear and confusion in her eyes before the door slides shut. And all of this with no words whatsoever. Yes, the actors are fantastic and the director is great, but the camerawork is what really makes it sing. Shooting the few actual driving scenes almost entirely from within the cars gives them a wonderful urgency as well. No matter what he has done before (The Usual Suspects comes immediately to mind), this movie will be Sigel’s calling card for a very long time to come.
Better writers than me have devoted many hundreds of words to the music of this film; that wonderful, initially incongruous synth score and the great songs that help set the tone somewhere between To Live And Die In LA and Miami Vice. As fantastic as it does all sound, a minor complaint could be that the lyrics seem a bit on the nose at times. The rest of the movie leaves so much unsaid, then it’s the songs that pop up and spell it out for you. I’ll forgive it though, since they are such damn good songs.
Coming so late to the party, it is going to be hard to think up new ways to talk about the supporting cast. A hallmark of a lot of Refn’s films is that nobody does what you expect them to. Here, typecasting and preconceptions turn out to be an advantage to almost everyone. Albert Brooks is the funny guy. He’ll stand around and complain and it’ll be hilarious and, wait, what’s he doing with that fork? His scene with Bryan Cranston at the end is so touching as well, the way he tries to soothe him, to reassure him. But what does it say about this man who seems to dislike violence that all of his violent acts are carried out with a knife – normally a weapon of opportunity or of passion?
I could keep going about this film all night, but it’s time to bring this to a close. If you have seen Drive, you already know how good it is. If you haven’t, well, consider that your homework. There’ll be a test next week. Hey look, I managed to get through the whole review without mentioning Michael Mann. Oh, shit.