Ah, the ever-so-annoying “positive” review: paragraph after paragraph of lauding a movie with hardly a snarky comment or crass disparaging metaphor to be found. I hate writing these. When you write as many reviews as the typical film critic you long for the opportunity to amuse yourself, and unfortunately there just aren’t as many hilarious synonyms for “great” as there are for “f***ing awful.” This is the price I pay for exceptional entertainment, and Drive definitely qualifies, which is wonderful while I’m watching it but annoying as hell as I sit down to actually write about why you should really see this film.
I’m going to get all “film school” on you for a minute, but let’s talk about “style” and “substance” for a moment. Style and substance are two fundamental aspects of art in all its forms that work together to tell a story or convey a message or idea. Some films emphasize one over the other, like Bunraku, a fun film which played with good-natured philosophy but was essentially an exercise in pomp and circumstance, while others go the opposite route, like Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, which was so committed to its messages that the means by which it conveyed them were apparently a tragic afterthought. Nicolas Winding Refn’s new crime tale, Drive, is that strange kind of movie in which the style is the substance. The story is nothing new and the characters are familiar archetypes, but the means by which Refn tells his story are so thoroughly and unusually absorbing that his particular vision imbues the film with genuine importance that is otherwise lacking in the screenplay. He won the Best Director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and he pretty much deserved to.
The tale is simplicity itself. Ryan Gosling plays a stuntman and part-time getaway driver who befriends a pretty, introverted neighbor played by Carrie Mulligan as well as her young son, but when her husband, Sucker Punch’s Oscar Isaac, falls on hard times Gosling agrees to assist him in pulling off an ill-fated job that places his surrogate family in jeopardy. That’s basically it. We’ve seen it before, damn it, but in this case that’s a meaningless observation. The plot may be told in broad strokes, but the movie exists primarily in the individual moments that other films would gloss over entirely. The car chases – there are two – are memorable but not glamorized. One is milked throughout an extended prologue, and yet it’s a quiet affair in which the hero rarely even exceeds the speed limit, using his wits and impeccable timing to elude the authorities at a time when Jason Statham would shoot his shocks to hell jumping overpasses. The second is brief but harrowing, and conveyed with as much subtlety as Refn can muster while still portraying a spectacular wreck courtesy of Gosling’s superior wheeling and dealing.
Those moments are not, however, the centerpieces of Drive, in which subtle character interactions are the norm and inform the brief cacophonies of action in a way that makes each violent discharge seem like a significant event, much like it would in real life. The average human being, criminals and bystanders alike, do not spend most of their time in a state of active adrenaline, and for once an action movie actually conveys this. The stillness of daily life makes the occasional violence of Drive feel like the powerful, rare occurrence it would actually be, whether you suspect it's on the horizon or whether it springs suddenly from nowhere whatsoever. The film conveys the thrills of a movie like Ong Bak without belaboring the action, and it’s a little marvel because of it.
Jaded filmgoers will see the component parts of Drive from a mile off, and can probably catch Refn’s influences from the works of Michael Mann, Walter Hill and Mike Hodges. The score evokes fond memories of 80’s action classics with soundtracks from Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, no doubt about it. But this is Refn’s version of familiar events and styles, and the result is distinctive even while it makes you want to marathon Thief, Driver and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead right afterwards. Actually, the film of which Drive reminds me most is Stanley Kubrick’s early thriller The Killing, which likewise conveyed a classic potboiler narrative using only the filmmaker’s canny craftsmanship to separate it from similar fare. And likewise it’s the work of an overtly talented filmmaker still developing their craft. But Refn's not quite Kubrick, and his film falls short of perfection.
You see, Drive’s narrative minimalism is both a blessing and a curse, lending the film a memorable air even as it undermines audience involvement, particularly in regards to Gosling’s protagonist. He’s a cipher, failing to earn himself so much as a name throughout the film, whose credits refer to him only as “Driver.” He’s defined by his actions, but those actions are informed entirely by the events of the film, which are limited in scope. He encounters a family unit, for example, and through their interactions we infer that he’d like to have one of his own, but the lack of greater context diminishes the extent to which we understand why. We know not where he comes from, or how his experiences in Drive relate to or differ from any of the other events in his life. He glides throughout the film with purpose but little overt motivation, and despite the subtle and involving performance from Ryan Gosling this drags the film down from “instant classic” territory, since we don’t know how much we should care about, praise or condemn his actions.
Drive plays with sweeping moments of heroism and villainy, but regardless of the “style is substance” argument has no particular point to make, and writing the film off as “just a bunch of stuff that happened” is fair to a point, even though it ignores the pleasure of watching all that stuff happen in a special way. And calling a movie “imperfect” is a far cry from finding serious fault, so although it could have used a bit more fleshing out Drive is still an absolute treasure from start to finish.
CRAVEONLINE RATING: 8.5/10