I wrote this first paragraph last, because I almost didn't write it at all. My reason is that the plot of Drive is the least important part of the film, and the less you know the better. Essentially, it's about a Hollywood stunt performer (played by Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver. He participates in a heist that goes horribly wrong, and is forced to try and mop up the mess. I will say no more.
Drive speaks to its audience not in words, but in the true language of cinema: sound and cinematography. Like it's main character, Drive is a film of very few words. With the dialogue kept to an absolute minimum (Gosling and the director spent a huge amount of time cutting it down), the film relies instead on the sound of roaring engines, a pumping retro electronic soundtrack and of course, long, pregnant, tension ratcheting silences, to provide the viewer with spectacular aural stimulation and emotional angst. Much of the talking is done not by the actors, but through the lyrics in songs like Nightcall from Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx, Under Your Spell from Desire and A Real Hero from College. I've always been intrigued by a music video where the lyrics dictate exactly what's happening on screen, and now Winding Refn has gone and done it in a movie! The man is a genius. The rest of the soundtrack (composed by Cliff Martinez) is a serious achievement, and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy.
The sound of Drive is in perfect harmony with its beautiful cinematography, making use of high contrast tones, low key lighting and slow motion to visualise the city of Los Angeles like you have never seen it before. This beauty and elegance is interrupted at singular moments by violence that is as brutal and shocking as on-screen violence can get. In fact, for one scene, the director took advice from Gaspar Noe, another director with a propensity to shock his audiences. If you have seen Irreversible, you may know what scene I am referring to. Together, the sounds and visuals of Drive play like a perfectly stylized ballet of violence and beauty, keeping me completely engrossed from start to end. I'm not surprised that Winding Refn won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. It takes a stroke of genius to make a film of this nature hang together so delicately yet grip the audience so furiously.
Only credited as Driver, Ryan Gosling does a fantastic job at portraying what is really the heart of the film. In fact, his character is the film: efficient, intense and ferocious, he does not speak because he does not need to. He just does, and the message comes across loud and clear. Never before have actions spoken so much louder than words. The qualities of Driver are contrasted quite starkly by the tenderness and vulnerability of Irene, Carey Mulligan's character. She is perfectly cast: not so beautiful as to distract, but extremely effective at exuding emotional vulnerability. And then we have Shannon, played by one of my absolute favourite actors, Bryan Cranston. Since portraying the enigmatic Walter White in AMC's Breaking Bad, Cranston has landed a host of sought after movie roles. I've seen him in a few of those, but this is perhaps the first time I see him play a character who could be described as the opposite of Walter White, and he does it with heartbreaking sincerity. Other characters include foul mouthed Bernie Rose played by Albert Brooks (who was so good he may be in with a shot for an Oscar), the "belligerent asshole" Nino played by one of my other favourites, Ron Perlman, as well as Blanche and Standard played by a trashed-up Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and smashed-up Oscar Isaac (Sucker Punch) respectively.
The phenomenal casting choices and performances in Drive are perhaps due to Nicolas Winding Refn doing things a little differently. He did not cast actors based on casting tapes or auditions. Instead, he required they meet him in person at his house. Albert Brooks, for example, accepted his role precisely because Winding Refn was thinking out of the box in asking him to play the opposite character to what he normally plays. Ron Perlman asked to be in this movie because he has always wanted to play a Jewish man who wants to be an Italian gangster. And Ryan Gosling not only spent massive amounts of time with the director, whether it be refining his character in the script or driving Winding Refn around LA to scout for locations, but he also went a little method, completely rebuilding the 1973 Chevrolet Malibu he drives in the film. I mean, during production, they all lived together in Winding Refn's house! This film was a labour of love from all involved, and it shows.
Drive is an experience you cannot miss on the big screen, and easily one of the best films of 2011. It is beautiful, intense, brutal and shocking; but most of all, it is something different from anything you will see all year. The film and it's characters remind me of everything from film noir classics to carsploitation flicks like Vanishing Point. The end result though, is something new all together. So, in that sense, it also reminds me of my favourite filmmaker of all: Quentin Tarantino. It feels so good not to be disappointed.
9.5 out of 10