"What's a Jew doing running a pizzeria?"
If you were to tell me that there was a better ten minutes put on film this past year than the first ten minutes of Drive, I would call you a liar. It is beyond intense, your heart is in your throat, and you don't really even know what's going on yet, making it a thousand times more effective than it should have been. Ryan Gosling cements his status as the go-to young actor to play tremendous intensity. He is credited only as Driver, an enigmatic Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic who moonlights as a getaway driver for hire.
His boss on set and at the chop shop is Shannon (the amazingly versatile Bryan Cranston, who does more with just a limp than most actors can do with pages of dialogue) who is attempting to make a deal with a gangster named Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, doing the finest work of his long and distinguished career). He's trying to get Bernie to invest in a race car which Driver will soup up and race. It's a long shot deal with a big-time criminal, but things seem to be headed in the right direction.
Driver meets a woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan, another fantastically natural actress) and her son Benicio, who live in his apartment building. Benicio's father Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison and about to be released soon. Driver takes a shine to the struggling mom and son, finding himself becoming emotionally attached to them. When Standard is released from prison, he and his family are harassed and threatened by the criminals he used to work for, and Driver decides to intervene. He offers to take care of the job they want Standard to do in exchange for his freedom and the end of the threats to his family. Needless to say, things don't go as planned, and Driver finds himself in a compromised situation he never bargained for.
It's best if I don't go on if you haven't seen the film, and if you've seen it, there's no need for me to go on. The film is pure, undiluted style from start to finish, and cements Nicolas Winding Refn's status as the premiere director in hyper-stylized genre films. He deservedly won the Best Director prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and with only a handful of films under his belt, including the brilliant Bronson and Valhalla Rising (which I'll be looking at later this week), he's no longer just a director to watch, he's a director that commands your attention and rewards your patience.
The score by Cliff Martinez is a huge part of why the film works so well. Utilizing songs by Kavinsky and College, as well as an absolutely brilliant use of the song "Oh My Love" by Riz Ortolani, the score is minimalist and unforgettable. Matthew Newman's cinematography plays with contrast in the best way possible. The nighttime scenes are lit beautifully and the daytime scenes utilize natural light to incredible effect. Driver lives in the shadows and relies on them to conceal his true nature, and the daytime scenes are where he sees people for who they truly are.
The performances are remarkable across the board. Gosling is amazing and uses what little dialogue he has to great effect. His scene in the diner, with the guy who recognizes him from a job, is an exercise in combustive restraint. Cranston is also fantastic, playing a guy who never got a break without a trace of Walter White to him. He manages to be pathetic, pitiable and lovable, all at the same time. Mulligan is also fantastic, playing a woman devoted to her husband, but also wanting the best life possible for her son. Ron Perlman plays Nino, one of Bernie's partners, and is great as always. He's one of those character actors that could easily rely on his looks alone to convey his status as a heavy, but he infuses his dialogue with so much character that you can't help but admire how effortless he is on screen.
That brings me to Albert Brooks. I love Albert Brooks. He is one of my idols, someone who's work I have always admired, particularly Defending Your Life. There is not a trace of that lovable loser he's played for decades in his performance here. He is genuinely scary, and it's all the more effective because of his history as the soft-hearted, put-upon guy. He's genial enough, especially in the early going, but when he gets angry, you can feel the danger when he walks on screen. It's an incredible turn, the best reinvention of its kind since Bill Murray's brilliant performance in Rushmore.
My only problem with the film is the way it ends. I'm in dangerous territory here because I dare not spoil it for those who haven't seen it, but it's impossible to discuss otherwise. It's lack of a clear resolution is frustrating, but I'm glad it eschewed the horrendous trap of wrapping things up neatly like The Hurt Locker which should have ended in the cereal aisle. I suppose I'm trying to have it both ways here, but I just wish there had been a little more to the ending. It's the only thing keeping me from saying this was the best film of the year. It's an incredible film, but it just didn't resonate in me the way Tree of Life did, and I presume that's more my fault than the film's.
This is not a film for everyone. It's closer in tone and spirit to films like Melville's Le Samourai, Walter Hill's The Driver & Bertolucci's The Conformist than it is to anything being made today. I remember hearing about this case here: http://consumerist.com/2011/10/woman-sues-drive-for-not-having-enough-driving.html and just feeling sorry for the human race. Any jackass sitting down to this film expecting it to be anything like a movie with Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, The Rock, or any combination of the three, will be severely disappointed and worse for the wear. I fear for the offspring of people like this, not because they just don't get what a truly good film is, but because they're not equipped to handle anything other than white bread mediocrity.
If you give this film a chance, I promise that at the very least you'll be entertained by it, and at best, find yourself caught up in its unrelenting coolness. It's the kind of film that doesn't get made enough any more, and would have been right in line with the great action/suspense thrillers of the 70s. Don't sit at home saying "they don't make 'em like they used to" because they do, and they have. Drive is a mini-masterpiece, and I can only hope they continue to make 'em like this for years to come.