Ten Words or Less Review: Coolest movie of the year…so far.
This nameless man has a long history in movies. He’s been with us since the 60’s, when heroics and existentialism melded together into one enigmatic screen presence. He was Alain Delon in Le Samouri. He was Ryan O’Neal in The Driver. Steve McQueen tried to play him most everything he did. Clint Eastwood came to embody him. Robert DeNiro gave him a harsh edge,and a name, in Heat. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is also this man. Like the anthisis to the cliche of the sloveny cop with a ramshackle apartment, this hero criminal always lives in an under furnished apartment that would look vacant to most eyes. To this man, stuff is trivial, his acts warrant our appreciation. Though he lives on the wrong side of the law he has a code of ethics which he cannot divorce himself from no more than one could separate oneself from ones own arm. And though he’s a criminal we respect him for his sense of duty to an tangible code. He is always exceptional at doing one thing which comes to define him while the rest of his personality remains enigmatic. How he got where he is isn’t important. Why he is as he is isn’t important either. What is important is that he is there now. Most important of all, you never wrong this man nor a person he feels a proclivity for protecting. When you do, the machine in him will start and nothing will ever deter it. In Drive, Ryan Gosling plays this nameless title character we can attach no handle to other than Driver. With eyes that can look through people like so much glass and a faux blank expression which can endear and terrify in equal measure, Gosling embodies this long nameless creation and in turn brings forth one of his best incarnations yet.
Drive hits the screen with music and title cards that make us think it may have time warped here directly from 1985 under the guiding hand of Michael Mann. Composer Cliff Martinez gives us a beat of synthetic styling over hot pink credits that would make Harold Faltermeyer, John Carpenter or Tangerine Dream shiver with delight. We are dropped into a heist where we watch the Driver utilize his unflappable skills to elude pursuit from the cops. This is his night job. During the day he is a stunt driver for movies, flipping over in vehicles without his pulse raising a notch. When not working, he dwells within that unfurnished apartment. One afternoon he lends a hand to his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mom next door who needs a little help with cars, groceries and other mundane chores of life. The two begin what is not so much a romance, there isn’t any sex, as much as a mutual understanding of compassion and security between the two. He shares his love of driving with her and a bond is formed, culminating in holding hands. That’s as erotic as it gets. Then her husband is released from jail. He’s not a bad guy or a scoundrel. This movie doesn’t need a pandering and hostile cliche like that. What he is is in trouble with dangerous people and needs help. Gosling’s Driver volunteers it, hoping to set the whole family on the right track. Of course it all goes wrong, the husband is killed, one thing after another deteriorates, the large bag of mandatory cash is sought by greedy men and then people begin to drop like so many swatted flies.
Gosling, if you’ll excuse the terrible analogy, is the motor which powers Drive. His embodiment of this calm but unstoppable force of a man gives Drive its cool center. He never cries or screams or makes over the top speeches. He is that subtle and intimidating kind of presence which demands that we listen when he speaks, watch when he moves and really watch when he thinks. Around this pillar of deep stoicism are great actors with chewy parts. Carey Mulligan may not get much show or payoff, women in movies like this never do, but looking into Mulligan’s warm eyes for any prolonged amount of time is never a problem. Her abundance of soul clearly draws in the man who is searching for his. Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) get small, amusing parts that fill out the edges of Drive with color. Hovering over them like a hostile, omnipresent force is Albert Brooks. The renowned filmmaker, known for his comical panic attacks and well oriented insights into the delimmas of middle class caucassian guys, here turns a very darker shade of pale. He gets the chewy dialogue and scene stealing moments. His part is supporting but you will remember everything single thing he says and does. This ability to instantly elevate any scene several notches is a rare treat from a guy who often goes under or misused.
Though movies get cited as sources of endless violence I think of the majority of them as producers of endless mayhem. With mayhem, buildings topple over and thousands of people are crushed, but you think nothing of it and their deaths amount to little, if anything. Think Transformers or the Fast and Furious series. Violence occurs when one person harms another and makes you cringe and gasp when it happens. A real death coming to the proverbial doorstep of a real person. It can be ugly and make us completely reassess things when it happens. This is rare in movies. Drive is a violent movie and not just any kind of violent, but savage. Ryan Gosling’s jacket should be considered ominous foreshadowing, not just a cool wardrobe choice. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s picture quickly morphs from smooth and elegant to smooth, elegant and bloody. The first half of Drive is so even tempered, so majestic and steady that when these fits of brutality are unleashed, it can throw a viewer into shock. The picture doesn’t turn chaotic or lose its mind, it is merely being upfront about these characters being in a kill or be killed scenario. As these people quickly turn on each other there is pain in their demise, but the artistry of the piece is never lost. You’ll never see a shotgun blast to the face quite so artfully done as you do here.
As Drive concludes our enigmatic man with no name drives off. You could conceive that it is to his death but men like this never die, even when they do. This character will come back around as he must and always does. He may come back in a different vehicle of choosing. Perhaps on a motorcycle. Maybe he’ll appear on the horizon on a horse. Perhaps he will simply walk into the frame and demand our attention. He may race vehicles or he might rob banks or he might assassinate people. He will always be on the fringes, the only place where a criminal with a code can exist. When he does come back we’ll watch in rapt attention like we always do because when done right we can never take our eyes off this guy when he does these things. It is too hypnotic to turn away.