Drive - 2011
Director(s): Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer(s): Hossein Amini (screenplay) / James Sallis (book)
Cinematography by: Newton Thomas Sigel
Editor(s): Matthew Newman
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman.
Synopsis: A mysterious Hollywood stuntman and mechanic moonlights as a getaway driver and finds himself in trouble when he helps out his neighbor (IMDB).
This is one of my all-time favorite movies. It came right around the time where I was developing my love for the art of movie making. I’ve always loved movies, but during this time I was starting to realize movies are far more than just entertainment for the sake of entertainment (if you want them to be). But when Drive came-out in 2011, it had a mixed reception, to my disappointment. Critics and movie lovers gushed over it, but the mainstream audiences walked away feeling underwhelmed since it wasn’t the action-packed movie the trailers promised. This lead to me having multiple conversations explaining why I loved it to only be rebutted by, “but it’s so boring, where is the action?”. While false advertisement and expectations can be a hindrance to someone loving a movie, Drive is worth a revisit knowing what movie Winding Refn was trying to make and not what the marketing was trying to sell. Let’s do a little bit of a deep dive so you can see why I consider it one of my all-time favorites.
Quick note: I know that not everyone will love this movie, and you aren’t wrong for doing so. Maybe it’s not for you and that’s fine. Also, it’s sad that the state of movie discussion on the internet has gotten to the point that I must make that clarification.
First, a quick summary of the movie. The story revolves around Driver, played by Ryan Gosling, a stuntman and mechanic that mainly makes his money by being a hired getaway driver for heists. He falls in love with his neighbor, Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, and starts to imagine a world where he can be happy and have a normal life. But his hopes are quickly shattered after a botched heist and he is in deep with the mob. Things go terribly wrong and Driver sacrifices his happiness for the safety of Irene and her child.
One of the things I love about this movie is that everything has a purpose and nothing is by mistake. Let’s look at the opening car chase scene. We open with Driver setting his rules – “You give me a time and a place, I give you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own”. We see that he is in complete control of the situation and how it will play out (maps detailing his route on the table). Winding Refn shot the chase that ensues following the heist within the car, through the perspective of Driver. Nothing that we see isn’t through his eyes, everything is going according to his plan – everything is under control. Contrast that chase scene with the one that follows the botched heist in the second act of the movie we see a completely different style. We get multiple exterior shots of the cars going erratically through traffic and Driver looking flustered. Winding Refn is visually telling the audience that Driver is no longer in control and exterior forces are dictating where we are going, only to suck the audience back in the car when Driver finally gets the upper hand and destroys the car that is following them, telling us that Driver finally got a handle on the situation.
Quick note: even if you don’t end up liking the story or the movie, you are guaranteed to love the soundtrack and the opening credit sequence of downtown LA.
Winding Refn also didn’t let a single space of his frame go to waste. During the courtship of Driver and Irene, we are constantly reminded that Irene is married – with the placement of pictures around the house. There are two instances where this is masterfully done and it always catches my attention. First is when Driver takes Irene to her home after her car breaks down. She offers him water and we see her stand in front of a mirror serving the glass. She turns her back to the mirror and we see a picture of her husband and her son in the mirror with Driver’s reflection out of focus in the mirror. The second instance that I love is when Driver and Irene have the “perfect” day together with her son. He sees himself being part of this family and possibly being happy. We cut to a moment where Driver is sitting on the couch smiling at Irene and in the side table we see the picture of her husband out of focus and Driver in focus. We can see the shift of Irene’s focus from her husband to her new love interest. We can also see that her husband is always a presence in their relationship.
Quick note: the acting across the board is on point and Gosling’s facial expressions say more than a 15-minute monologue could ever say.
Another aspect of Winding Refn visual storytelling that I love is the use of the elevator as the setting for Driver’s feelings of loneliness, hope, love, anger and despair. Once the incredible opening credits are wrapping up, we see Driver get in the elevator alone as Irene is walking out - loneliness. One of his first interactions with Irene and her son is inside the elevator - hope. After the heist goes wrong, he gets in the elevator with Irene after confessing his part in the heist. There is another man inside the elevator and Driver recognizes that he is here to kill them. He is trapped inside this elevator and this man has invaded the one place where he and Irene where hidden away from the world. He grabs, her places her in a corner and kisses her – love. This kiss is him saying goodbye to her and his hopes for a normal life since he is going to show her who he really is for the first time in their relationship. He turns and attacks the man, killing him in brutal fashion on the opposite corner of the elevator (his two opposite worlds visually represented as well) – anger. Irene steps off the elevator in complete shock as to what she just saw. Driver, with is face covered in blood, can only look as the doors closes on his happiness – despair.
Quick note: we also get a close-up of the scorpion on his jacket after this scene, representing the fable of the scorpion and the frog. The lesson of that fable is that we can’t escape our true nature – just like Driver couldn’t escape his.
Alright, this review is getting long and I’ve barely scratched the surface, but that’s my point about this movie. It’s not your typical action movie. It has layers in each frame that were meticulously placed there by the director. The screenplay from Hossein Amini is structured beautifully to guide the audience from beginning to end. The characters are complex (I didn’t get to talk about Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston or Oscar Isaac) and their actions are dictated by their traits, not by the plot. Almost all the conversations are drenched in subtext that upon repeated viewings makes you love the movie even more. My favorite is when Driver is talking to Irene’s son and asks him how does he know the cartoon shark is bad. He says because he is a shark and they can’t be good guys. Driver’s face changes as he is reminded that because his nature and the life he chose he can never be the “good guy”. Drive is a movie that is worth dissecting on all fronts of the cinematic experience and I don’t think I could fully do it justice. But, if this makes you want to give it a second change or a first, then I did my imaginary job. Nicolas Winding Refn is why I love movies.
Drive is worth a buy on Blu-ray. Do it!
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