When you finally get your hands on a film that has managed to win laurels from all around you, you know your expectations are high. “Drive” was one of the year’s biggest Oscar snubs for unknown reasons, being nominated (deservedly too) in the sole category of “Best Achievement in Sound Editing”. That is just one of the many great qualities of this film though.
The protagonist (Ryan Gosling) is a silent, brooding tough guy known only as the “Driver” or “kid” as some of them call him. He is a part time mechanic in a garage, a part time stuntman for some action films and also moonlights as a driver on hire for driving getaway cars for robbers/hoods who want to pull off a heist and also have a quick means of escape. Circumstance gets him involved with a cute looking Irene (Carey Mulligan) who has a little kid for her to take care of and a husband (Oscar Isaac) doing time in prison. No points for guessing that there is instant bonding between the Driver and Irene and her kid. The Driver takes care of them for a while…takes them on joyrides, gives company to the kid and the mother once in a while, among other things. But beyond this cliché of an accessory to crime possessing a heart of gold reserved for the cute married woman with a kid there is a lot going on between the driver’s friend and employer, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), and a mobster named Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his partner, a Jewish gangster by the name of Nino (Ron Perlman). The plot thickens when certain events connect the Driver directly with this pair of gangsters and also Irene’s husband Standard who suddenly returns…..
The story is best left for the viewer to unravel but rest assured, this film goes far beyond the plot. Firstly, it serves as a rather intimate character portrait of the protagonist whose roots are unknown, who seems like a rather cold and distant individual, a socially inept loner who exhibits least remorse when it comes to doing something not particularly ethical, yet one who also possesses a heart of gold…for those who deserve it of course. Others get a taste of his ultra-violent side! All of the scenes revolving around the Driver are very well-written and capable of giving us a satisfying picture of this mysterious individual and also manage to catch us by surprise at several instances. Particularly noteworthy is one scene in an elevator (excellent scene, brilliantly acted) and some subtly clever scenes like the one when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is sharing a light moment when he and Irene met for the first time, with his son and with the driver. The expressions on the faces of both Irene and the Driver are priceless! Or that scene when the Driver and Irene’s son are watching something on TV and the son calls the shark a “bad guy”. “There are no good sharks?”, The Driver asks. Superb moments all!
Moreover, the film excels in almost all technical aspects with flying colours. The sound design and editing as mentioned earlier is top-notch; one of the standout aspects of the film. The cinematography is beautiful; there are sometimes long slo-mo takes clubbed with a hypnotic background score that give the film a dream-like, meditative quality, oozing oodles of atmosphere. Also well-done is the electro-pop soundtrack and the placement of songs, especially the title piece (“Nightcall”) that sounds like the distinctly 80s synthpop. Some have called the film ‘slow‘ but thanks to Nicolas Winding Refn’s command on the handling, his product is one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen in a long time. It is also refreshing to see that despite this being a film that has heists and car chases, it is made to look more like an art-house picture that slowly establishes itself and gradually builds up the viewer’s mood rather than looking like a quick-cut-edited pop-corn actioner. The only thing that connects this film to the latter category are the somewhat unreal instances where our hero dodges near-fatal situations and magically survives (mostly without a scratch!) near-death experiences like dangerous car stunts and chases, sudden shotgun surprises, lone attacks in foreign territories and stab wounds! The violence is gory (also unrealistic at times), perhaps to please the gorehounds and action film buffs alike!
Now, for the performances. Albert Brooks who is perhaps the best of all the supporting actors; does a marvelous job as the soft-spoken yet crooked gangster Bernie Rose. Ron Perlman, an often overlooked actor is outstanding as the scary looking Jewish mobster Nino. Carey Mulligan looks cute and is a brilliant performer as well. She has a very expressive face and uses it very aptly in some of the film’s best scenes. Your heart goes all out to see her take care of the kid alone and really wish something good would happen to her.
Ryan Gosling exudes coolness with a capital C with uber-confidence in the more restrained scenes of his, where he conveys a lot through his face which shifts between a brooding, intense look to a deadpan stare and then to a goofy smile, especially when he is with Irene or her kid. However, it is during the times when it is required of him to emote or exhibit outbursts that the actor feels a little ill at ease and seems to lack the spontaneity. Therefore the way he delivers some lines or the act that he displays seems a tad forced. This renders his performance somewhat inconsistent and that is where the actor loses points in an otherwise fine job of acting.
Winding Refn has said that the film is a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, “Taxi Driver”. And one can instantly recognize the homage from some situations in the picture and also the overall persona of the protagonist. (And is it just a coincidence that Albert Brooks appears in that film as well as this?) While this film cannot possibly equal the Robert De Niro starrer, it is a splendid work of art on its own merits. A definite must-see and must-own.