Review of Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011):

After providing foreign-language fodder for international film festivals over the past decade or so with his Pusher trilogy, Denmark’s-greatest-contribution-to-cinema-since-Lars-Von-Trier – Nicolas Winding Refn – is having no problems wrapping his film directing skills around the English tongue. Critics fawned over his UK release Bronson (2008) and now, with the minimal-action actioner Drive, he consolidates his rise as ‘a (big) talent to watch’.

Drive works so well because of its refusal to accommodate genre labelling, but in order to give it a tick-box – as us film pontificators have a tendency to do – it is like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle has crossed coasts to drive in Michael Mann’s Los Angeles. This is contemporary L.A, but with a distinct ’80s aesthetic that comes through the title credit typography, the Tangerine Dream-influenced music by Cliff Martinez, the muscle car culture and our hero’s shiny scorpion jacket, which he persists on wearing regardless of blood-sprays.

Ryan Gosling (The Notebook, Blue Valentine) plays a baby-faced, cold-as-ice operator – epitomising the explosive, pent-up rage of a De Niro, folded into the quiet-type, mystery-guy charisma of an Eastwood. Gosling’s got this film in the palm of his hand and, like Natalie Portman in Black Swan, he’s found his ultimate ‘ta-da’ moment.

A loner, a Hollywood stunt driver and an occasional getaway guy, Gosling – as the exceptionally talented, young ‘Driver’ – develops a love jones for his next door neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), who is mother to little Benicio (Kaden Leos) and wife to a sympathetic jailbird, Standard (Oscar Isaac), poised to make his return from prison. This imminent family reunion puts a stop to any blossoming romance, but when Standard’s debts from ‘The Big House’ look as though they may threaten his wife and child, our Driver agrees to help him settle the score.

For lovers of cinema, Drive is like finding the mother lode – an elegant action film that pits moments of stillness against moments of extreme – yet tightly and clearly choreographed – frenzy and violence. In terms of its drama, Drive can be (almost) frustratingly slow; the characters sinking into each others’ eyes and thoughts for unpalatably long durations of time with shards of light skewering them like fingers from heaven. Say something, people – why don’t you! (That’s my internal dialogue, by the way). But as a stylistic device, this works to the film’s advantage and gives extra weight to any counter scenes.

Shots, too, are held until their dying moments, such as when Gosling slips behind a door jamb with gun in hand; the shot holding steady on his cat-stalking stealthiness until the last of him – the tip of his nose – has disappeared. And, sometimes, the two jarring elements of stillness and violence collide as one, like Gosling’s visit to a strip club to ‘acquire’ information, which sees the topless ladies poised like mannequins in a Kubrickian tableau while some guy has the crap beaten out of him.

Nicolas Winding Refn has taken a brave stance, potentially alienating all audiences for his film – too ponderous for action fans, too violent for Gosling’s love story followers – but that gives Drive a voice all of its own and one that speaks loudly to us people who enjoy all sorts of cinema, especially when they’re thoughtfully combined as a unique, tasty recipe. Throw in one of the best opening sequences ever committed to screen and excellent performances from all its cast – including Bryan Cranston as the loveable loser, Albert Brooks as the loveable bad guy and Ron Perlman as the bad guy bad guy – and you’ve got one of the best movies of the year.

Just to put you off the scent, I’d like to draw your attention to the following quote from Refn as found in the film’s press notes: “Since I was a teenager, I was a big fan of Sixteen Candles. I’ve always wanted to remake that film one way or another and, in a very unlikely way, I’ve done that in Drive. Carey [Mulligan] has all the intelligence and charm of a young Molly Ringwald. The romantic scenes she has with Ryan [Gosling] make for a very delicate and beautiful contrast to the brutality of the rest of the film.”

Aha! So that’s where the font in the opening credits comes from…

Drive is in cinemas (Australia) from 27th October 2011

Note: This trailer does not accurately represent the film. It is included here as an example of poor advertising – nothing more.

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