I went to see Drive this weekend, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. That’s how good it is.
I first heard about the film a few weeks ago on radio France Info. They called it one of the best films of the year, a masterpiece directed by Nicolas Winding Refn that marries popular cinema with cinema d’auteur. After Mike Cane posted some thoughts about it on his blog, I knew I couldn’t miss it.
The praise I’ve read for Drive is well-deserved; it’s undoubtedly one of the most powerful films I’ve seen in years. The plot revolves around a Hollywood stunt driver who works an equally dangerous job on the side as a getaway car driver. After a chance meeting, he becomes involved with his neighbor, a young mother who is raising her child alone. When the lawyer calls to say the boy’s father is coming home from prison, things start getting complicated, and the action takes turn after unexpected turn.
The acting in this film is outstanding. Ryan Gosling’s performance as the unnamed hero of the film is extraordinary, all the more so because there’s so little dialog. We never learn the name of the driver, a detail that might be overlooked, but one that reinforces the sense of the driver’s isolation from those around him. Precise and reserved, he’s almost robotic, yet Gosling conveys a wide range of emotions from the tenderness the driver feels for the woman and her child, to his protectiveness and even hatred toward those who menace the happiness of the family. Uncluttered by dialog, there’s nothing here to cover a mediocre performance, but nothing needs to be covered; the acting is simply brilliant.
Some have compared the driver to well-known protagonists from other films. Although High Plains Drifter is a ready association, the driver reminds me more of Jean-Pierre Melville’s solitary hit-man, Jef Costello, superbly portrayed by Alain Delon in The Samurai. Among several other things the two films have in common, The Samurai is also ostensibly a mafia story and has long passages without dialog.
Just what makes Drive so memorable? I think it starts with a story that’s surprising and original; it’s gripping because the audience isn’t sure what’s coming next and is drawn to know more about the characters and what happens to them. It’s also remarkably well put together in every aspect. The score by Cliff Martinez perfectly captures the atmosphere without calling attention to itself; it brings out the emotions of the characters without getting in the way. As Nicolas Winding Refn explained in an interview on NPR,
Music is the most important tool a director has to work with. Because music enhances emotion, and any kind of art form is about expressing and enhancing emotions. And what’s good about music is that it’s so pure. It’s pure emotions. I mean the first movies for many years were just pictures with music. So it’s based on that combination.
When I left the theater, this emotion lingered strongly. The film seemed to speak so forcefully about what it means to be human, about isolation and about making connections. I read later that Refn said the film was about “being isolated and not knowing why.” The simple elegance of the film put things in such stark relief that his message was crystal clear. I read that the screenplay was loosely adapted by Hossein Amini from James Sallis’ novel of the same name. I’d like to read the book now to see how the author developed the story and characters there.
There’s not a lot of technology in this film. If it weren’t for the cell phones, the latest Ford GT Mustang and the Chrysler 300, the film could have been set in the 80s. The story itself is timeless.
I’ve also seen many comparisons to David Lynch. Certainly the LA setting and some of the cinematographic elements invite comparison, but I think this comparison does a disservice to the film and to Refn. Drive is better than that. It is resolutely original. There’s no need to crack an obscure symbolism to decrypt a hidden message and if the characters are somewhat exaggerated, they’re not grotesque; although slightly surreal, as if it were a dream, there’s nothing supernatural about this film. It’s probably not for everyone, but to my mind it’s far more accessible than most of David Lynch’s work.
After seeing it, I read later that Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn worked closely together in the making of Drive. I think that shows as well. A Real Hero by College is one of the hit songs from the soundtrack. Gosling and Refn drove around Los Angeles together listening to it for hours. I also listened to it over and over for hours this past weekend. If you’d like to know what the film is about just listen, and if you like what you feel when you hear it, then go see this film.