“I used to produce movies. They were violent, sexy little films. The critics called them European,” says Albert Brooks’s Bernie about halfway through Drive–a violent, sexy film that many critics are also calling European. However, this critic must say this up front, Drive is an excellent, thought-provoking, controversial and violent film that seems to not care about its own hype, and I love it for this reason. But I must also say this, the film does carry hype, and it may not live up to thing you’re expecting.
First off, Drive is not The Transporter, as many people have been saying. Of course, a film containing a good looking man who drives a car and gets in a fight must be a rip off of a Jason Statham film. Because, you know, it’s the only other movie that contains such things. Forget Bullitt, Mad Max, Gone in Sixty Seconds (The good one and the crappy one), Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop, and a whole host of other films, The Transporter is the movie that Drive is totally ripping off. Okay, enough bitter sarcasm.
One of the first things I read about Drive, after its director, Nicolas Winding Refn, won the best director award at Cannes, was that he had intended the film to be some sort of hybrid between Purple Rain and Blue Velvet–filled with dark, moody atmosphere while simultaneously oozing some sort of pop-rock vibe. After reading that interview, Drive immediately became my most anticipated film of the year. Add that to my admittedly frightening love of Ryan Gosling and my admiration for Refn’s previous work, and you’re looking at somebody who was fully prepared to love every waking second of Drive.
But the movie really is not a hybrid of two strikingly different ’80’s films whose titles begin with a color. It actually feels a whole lot like American Gigolo. From the font of the opening credits to the synthesized, soundscapey soft-rock soundtrack, to the way in which the main character seems to only exist because of his profession, all I could think about was how similar these two movies are. However, instead of male prostitution gone wrong, Drive is all about a heist gone wrong. Or perhaps it’s about more, perhaps it’s about a choice gone wrong. Or maybe a lack of choices. Or maybe it’s about something totally different, like the violence of American cinema, or the evil of greed. Maybe it isn’t about anything. I don’t really know. I don’t think you do either.
The main character, played by Ryan Gosling, is named Driver in the credits. In the film, his name is never mentioned. He has no past, no family, no goals, and no real personality. He’s a good enough guy. He’s loyal to his boss, he’s fiercely protective of his girlfriend, Irene, and her son. He is even protective of his girlfriend’s husband, who returns from a two-year stint in prison during Driver and Irene’s courtship. But who is he really? He loves fixing and driving cars. That’s about it. Driver keeps mostly to himself, usually letting those around him do the talking. In this way, the characters who surround Driver are the ones who define him. The ultimate existential protagonist.
In fact, the only time Driver seems to have some sort of humanity inside of him is when he explodes into a violent rage. Like a switch going off, Driver is able to unleash a violence more intense than anybody in my theater, including me, expected. And the most terrifying part of it is, the people he hurts only deserve so much. When he decides to fight back he goes all the way, whether the audience is rooting for him or not. Sometimes the violence is so shocking and so sudden that it takes a second to even register that it happened.
Of course, movies today contain violence far more shocking than what can be found in this film. Gore levels have reached an all time high in Hollywood films. Even Refn’s previous film, Valhalla Rising, contains far more violence in its first half hour than Drive‘s entire runtime. But there is a difference. Valhalla Rising lets the audience know what kind of movie it is right away. Drive does the opposite, letting the audience think it is one thing, before changing drastically halfway through the picture.
The film begins in typical heist movie fashion. We are treated to a scene in which Driver helps two men escape from a crime. Driver is calm, collected, confident, and amazing at his job. The opening chase sequence, hands down, is one of the most riveting sequences I’ve seen in the theater since The Dark Knight‘s bank robbery opener.
We then get to see Driver at his other job, performing dangerous maneuvers as a stunt driver for Hollywood movies. In this job, he also excels because of his amazing talent and seemingly infinite calm. However, after the film gets into a nice rhythm and falls into the formula we’ve come to expect from movies like this, it goes off and becomes something totally different. Something totally, unbelievably chilling. The film turns into a wrestling match between two ideas: whether or not we like the protagonist. At first, Driver is exactly the kind of action movie star we’ve paid to see. But then, after some time with the character, we learn to fear him. We begin to question his morals. Who is he exactly? How much do we really know about him?
He is an action movie star performing action movie stunts, but he is missing that Jason Statham charm. Which makes us wonder, why do we pull for the protagonist of action movies in the first place? Because they are usually the best looking and most charming characters? Surely such grisly acts of violence should be met with shock and horror instead of high fives and laughter. Drive is a film that seems to question the audience’s morals. It seems to be constantly asking us if we should trust such a protagonist.
Drive is superbly directed in a style somewhere between European Art-house and Mumblecore minimalism. The performances are exceptional, especially those from Albert Brooks and Ryan Gosling, and the music (excluding a couple of questionable choices) is perfectly, ironically chosen. If you were a fan of the George Clooney espionage thriller The American, or you are, for some reason, a huge fan of American Gigolo, I recommend you see the movie immediately. If you like action scenes where the camera captures the scene by shaking incoherently, then look elsewhere. I’m sure Paul Greengrass is working on something new.
As the film finally reaches its dark, violent end, it leaves us with one last joke. Will there be a sequel?