Friday, October 14, 2011

Drive - Theatrical Review


Release Date: September 16, 2011

Are you tired of all those crappy and sub par films getting released right now? September is a known dumping ground for studios that want to unload films their either don't want anymore, don't know how to market or just plain don't know what to do with but every now and then there is a diamond in the rough. That crown jewel is Drive and my how it sparkles.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: Arclight Pasadena
Time: 3:30 pm September 17, 2011  
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 40 min
Studio: Filmdistrict

Loves: Carey Mulligan
Likes: Ryan Gosling, Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks, Original takes on old genres 
Neutral: How this movie was marketed as an action film 
Hates: That so many people apparently hate this movie 
Awesome: The soundtrack, check it out when you get the chance

The closer we get to the end of the year the more it is becoming apparent that my top films will most likely be comprised of movies like Drive. Not so much based on its indie roots but more so on how it sort of came out of nowhere. I knew of the film quite a while before it was released but I never gave it much attention due to a number of factors (it's unfortunate marketing campaign that made it look like Fast Five, its star Ryan Gosling never really sparked much interest in me and its suspicious September release date didn't instill much confidence). After hearing quite a few good things about it though (and a relative drought of anything else worthwhile in the cinemas) I decided to give it a go and I am very happy that I did.

Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a mysterious guy by choice. What we learn about him through the opening moments of the film are just some simple truths about who he is at this particular moment in time. He works at his friends garage tinkering on cars all day while taking on the occasional stunt driver role for a local Hollywood action film and taking his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son out for some fun on the weekends. He also just so happens to moonlight as a wheelman for any would be criminals willing to accept and play by his rules. Despite all that though his life is a fairly simple one with aspirations to help his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) out by driving a Nascar which just so happens to be part of a financial venture of a local thug, Bernie (Albert Brooks) who has connections with some very bad people including mob boss Nino (Ron Perlman). All this gets even more complicated for Driver when Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets released from prison and needs some help to settle a debt that unknowingly is tied into the underworld of L.A. that Driver is already a part of.

Driver is a very confident fellow.

There is a lot of stuff going on in Drive but the funny thing is that you hardly ever feel like all the different elements it is constantly juggling ever becomes too much to handle. The film gracefully switches gears from a crime film, to a romance and a revenge fantasy without a single hitch. The key is in the subtlety of the presentation, there is nothing in your face about anything that happens in Drive. I know a lot of people were caught off guard (myself included) by the misleading marketing campaign for the film but it thankfully isn't that type of film where there are car chases and shootouts every ten minutes in place of meaningful character moments. While that stuff is definitely present, director Nicolas Winding Refn seems more concerned about his characters and each of their personal lives instead of having them dodge bullets constantly.

This somber and laid back nature of the film works greatly in its favor though. It's strange to think that going into this I was expecting an action movie of some sort and while I loved the few action scenes that there were I actually found myself more enthralled with the budding romance between Driver and Irene. I am a die hard romantic at heart and it doesn't take a whole lot to get me interested in a relationship between two characters that have a seemingly doomed relationship. I need to identify with them, like them and feel as though their growing attraction to one another is genuine. Drive accomplishes that with resounding success and even adds a cherry on top with the palpable on screen chemistry between both Gosling and Mulligan. But the film isn't satisfied by giving us a conventional romantic angle, it needs to present it to us in a completely unconventional way which ripples throughout the entire narrative as well.

They really do make a sweet couple.

Let's talk a little bit about that somber mood shall we. That word usually reflects sadness or despair and while there are most certainly aspects to Drive that fall into that category for sure, that somber feeling comes directly from the stylistic decisions by the director and not entirely due to the material itself. The first thing that struck me was the lack of dialog throughout most of the film. Driver is a man of very few words but so is just about everyone else it seems but that is what I love most about it. So often in most other films we have characters spouting out lines to help convey their thoughts or emotions to the audience, here it treats us with a little more respect by limiting dialog to the bare minimum. Now don't get me wrong here the characters aren't mute, far from it, but it never feels as though someone was saying anything that didn't need said.

Take the relationship between Driver and Irene for instance. How many times do we need to hear two characters tell each other that they are in love with one another? Often times it feels forced, especially when that love is developed over such a short period, but Drive somehow gives us a cliffsnotes version of them falling for each other using a series of very minor montages and it works. There was a moment later on in their relationship where Irene and Driver are in the car and in a very subtle move she softly places her hand on his...and that's it, I knew at that moment that she had grown to care for him. That moment coupled with all the knowing glances the two constantly give each other and just through the simple actions of Driver spending time with her son left no doubt in my mind that the two of them were infatuated.

When things heat up, Driver is ready for action.

To compliment that atmosphere there is a startlingly calming mood that pervades the rest of the film. You won't find any quick edits or shaky cams here, the camera, the characters and the action all have a very methodical nature to them. There are many instances where a shot will linger on a person as we try to decipher what is going through their head at that moment. When Driver is waiting outside a store that is being robbed we don't see the robbery but instead we get a very long, drawn out but very tense sequence where we see through his eyes all the different variables coming into play that he must develop contingency plans against if anything goes wrong. The simple fact that watching a man sitting in a car is more intense than any other action scene I have seen all year is astounding to me, but damn does it work.

I have spent a lot of time talking about romances and not very much on the action elements to the film which I apologize for because honestly this is one of the best action films of the year. Now,  I have heard from a lot of people that outright hated this film because it didn't live up to the trailer which marketed it as a Fast Five wanna-be (one person is even suing over it!) and I think it was the pace and lack of action packed car chases that have people split on on the film. Putting aside the insanity of people actually wanting this film to be more like that piece of vehicular manslaughter, I can sort of see where they are coming from. I have on occasion had my perspective on a film altered due to a misleading trailer but I am of the opinion that if the finished product is a much more ambitious venture than what it was selling itself as then I am all for it.

Bernie is your typical thug but he is a somewhat reasonable guy.

If I had gone into Drive expecting a film along the lines of Fast Five and it actually tried to be like that movie and failed then I would be on board with all the naysayers. But since it ended up being a much better film in regards to story, characterization and action compared to that other movie then I just don't get it. One can argue that the inherent lack of an action scene every ten minutes is a problem, but only if you have a low attention span. I would argue that Drive's action scenes are ten times more impactful because of their brevity and the simple fact that the characters involved are ones that we have come to care for. All that romance I was talking about earlier...the payoff for that is real motivations that we understand. He loves Irene and will do anything to protect her, as for Fast Five...why does Brian love Mia again? Oh yeah, cause she's pretty.

It saddens me that there has been so much talk about the lack of action in the movie and so little talk about how amazing the action that is here actually is. The quiet scenes are often punctuated with some of the most brutal deaths I have seen this year. You shouldn't be turned off by that though cause as strange as it may sound, despite the brutality of the deaths, they happen so quick that you have no time to even get grossed out let alone process what the hell had just happened.  While most of the action in the film is relegated to face to face encounters there are a couple of scenes with cars that may not win any awards for length but sure as hell win for execution. This is not a film that likes to replace character development with constant action scenes. It definitely takes its time getting there but when it does get there it goes for the gut.

Did I mention that this film gets pretty violent?

I haven't talked about the actors yet, suffice to say that they are all great across the board. Gosling plays the strong and silent type well enough and although Mulligan isn't exactly given much room to spread her wings she did admirable in her role. Brooks was great as usual as was Perlman, Isaac seemed to be stuck in his role as the creep from Sucker Punch and Cranston played the tired old man looking for a way out perfectly. The only person that I haven't mentioned yet is Christina Hendricks whom despite being marketed as a major player in the film is hardly even in it which makes it impossible to remark on. There was not one loose end in the bunch though, every actor was on the ball and with much of the acting being done through simple looks and gestures they all deserve praise for their efforts.

What about the plot you ask? To be honest here the plot is probably the weakest aspect of the entire movie. That's not to say it is bad or poorly handled, it's just a very conventional crime story but told in a very unconventional way. Drive is proof positive that not everything needs to be a revelation when it comes to the particulars of a well traveled story line. Where the story takes you will not blow you away, but the way it is told will make you forget that you have seen this story a hundred times before. This was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me and I suggest that you see it immediately. If you are the type of moviegoer that likes to check their brain at the door then Drive is not a movie for you. However, if you want a movie to excite you by presenting you with a well told story filled with great and memorable characters played by talented actors then I cannot imagine this film disappointing you. I suggest that you...




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