Summer’s over so it’s time for movie theatres to quiet down. The rest of the year is reserved for mediocre mainstream movies, with the rare gem hidden here and there until Oscar season rolls around at the end of the year. But this year’s already shocked me with a smart and worthwhile film like Contagion removed from blockbuster season. Now two weeks out from the biggest rush for movies, Drive is a movie you might have missed, but I can tell you now that it shouldn’t be.
I’m sure Drive has flown under the radar for most movie goers. The trailers don’t really promise much besides perhaps an actiony B-movie, filled with car chases and Ryan Gosling flashing his baby blues. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume by the Risky Business inspired neon pink titles and Goslings satin jacket that this movie was set in 1984. So maybe I shouldn’t spoil anything for you and let you be pleasantly surprised. But that’s not really my style, so I’ll tell you straight up. Drive is an incredible film.
Drive follows our main character, usually just called ‘Kid’, a mechanic and stunt driver by day, but a getaway driver by night. The film opens with him during one these getaways, displaying his uncanny skills on the road, both out driving and outsmarting his pursuers. But that’s all we get, an opening five minutes of action. The next hour or so we spend getting to know the kid, his quiet emotions, his aloof behavior. We see what his life is really like, because obviously it isn’t always car chases and police pursuits. He starts a relationship with his neighbor, played by Carrey Mulligan, and her young son. It isn’t until her husband is released from jail and comes home do things start to pick up. Not because our driver has anything to fear from the husband, in fact he is surprisingly unjealous of his wife’s new friend. Rather, our driver finally shows his emotions and the fact that he does care for this family. As the husband finds himself in trouble to local criminals, the kid finds himself needing to help. And that’s where we find ourselves in an action movie.
Ryan Gosling plays the unnamed Driver in an exceptional performance. The character is almost Jekyll and Hyde in nature, at once quiet and reserved, communicating mostly non-verbally—but deep down has a vicious side waiting to bubble up. There’s something about the wry smile cracking, good natured Driver that we see for the first half of the movie that draws you in, makes you think that you’ve actually sat down to watch a budding romance picture. It works well for the character when halfway through the film we see him explode into the violent wheelman we were expecting the entire time. He’s spent enough time being cool and sweet that when it does happen you’re taken aback at the transformation, at what was beneath the surface the entire time. That is acting. Albert Brooks is the other stand out in another quite unexpected performance as Bernie Rose, a Jewish would-be mobster. The casting is so against type for brooks, that it almost makes perfect sense. Not at all funny but harsh and cruel, with an air of exasperation at the short-comings of his chosen profession, Brooks’s portrayal makes you wonder why he hasn’t done something like this before.
But the real spotlight here is on Nicolas Winding Refn’s direction. The film is at first soft and subtle, lacking the action that teased you for the opening scenes. Another film would lose you here, as you watch Gosling court his neighbor, fix cars, and just live his life. But for some reason you’re enamored with just watching, waiting for that one scene that catapults the movie from neutral into, well…drive. And once the film takes off, about halfway through the breezy runtime (surprisingly I never felt like it dragged), you’ve scooted to the edge of your seat. Refn gives the action scenes a sort of sickening kind of realism. Everything has weight to it: the cars sliding along the asphalt, the blows crunching into bone, the seemingly gallons of blood spilled on the floor. And it’s all this that feeds this appetite you’ve developed watching the rest of the movie. The violence, though not gratuitous at all, just seems too much—almost as if we’ve become accustomed to the fantastic violence we see in most movies, so that this more realistic depiction of pain and peril is somehow shocking.
If you’re looking for the CG-filled, poorly acted B-movie from late night cable, the Bullitt inspired car chase-aganza to make Steve McQueen cringe, the look elsewhere. Drive is stylishly well made; some would say artsy, and more of a humanistic drama than an action movie. But it is an action movie, a hard hitting, visceral action movie. If Michael Bay could learn to make an action movie like this, and learn that he doesn’t need to blow up half the world, he might be remembered for something more than the guy who inflicted the Transformers series on us. Get out there and see this movie, all of you.