Filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn is still relatively unknown, especially to most American audiences. The director, who is originally from Denmark, has gained international notoriety among critics for his films which are typically hard-edged, violent and riddled with flawed characters (mostly men). His 2008 film, Bronson, launched the career of Tom Hardy who has become one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood. With his new film Drive, Refn will do the same for himself.
Ryan Gosling stars as a character whose name is never given and is credited only as Driver. By day, he is a stunt driver for the movies and works as a mechanic for Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who is also his agent/manager. By night, he is a getaway driver for whoever is willing to pay and abide by his very specific, and non-negotiable, rules. His neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son, Benecio (Kaden Leos), soon become part of his life, something which clearly does not happen often.
Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), who has been in jail, is released, but owes serious money to some men who have no qualms about beating the crap out of him in front of his son. When Driver finds out they threatened Irene and Benecio, he agrees to help Standard on a job which is supposed to pay his debt. As they always do, things go wrong and Driver ends up on the wrong side of the negotiating table from mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman).
Refn won the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for Drive which Gosling has described as a cross between a fairy tale and a John Hughes movie. It is easy to see both of these influences in the film, but Refn also pays homage to a multitude of filmmakers in the way he frames the scenes and handles the action. Refn is clearly a student of cinema and Drive presents him as a more subtle, less self-aware Quentin Tarantino.
Refn’s true gift is his refusal to pander to the audience. Drive is a film where violence bubbles just beneath the surface of every character and lurks around every corner. Refn builds the tension into a crescendo and then unleashes a barrage of brutality which does not abate for the rest of the film. Each scene is handled with surgeon-like patience, with every line of dialogue spoken (and that which is not spoken) perfectly paced and balanced.
Working with screenwriter Hossein Amini and a script based on the book by James Sallis, Refn has crafted in Driver a character which begs to be understood but gives virtually no clues about himself, very much like Eastwood’s iconic Man With No Name. Gosling, who brought this project to Refn after being impressed by the director’s previous work, was born to play this role. Unlike Johnny Depp and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, actors who transform themselves in order to play a character, Gosling always looks like himself. His gift as an actor, though, is his ability to adapt the character to what he looks like, pulling it on like a well-worn suit. Gosling’s work in Drive will be undoubtedly be talked about and referenced for decades to come.
Drive is without a doubt the best film to come out this year. Its success is due to Refn’s master skills as a filmmaker and his love and respect of cinema which ooze out of every single frame.
This film runs 100 minutes and is rated R.