Monday, September 26, 2011

Driving Force

What a mess last weekend was, huh? With three brand new cinema releases vying to make a big payday, none of the big three managed to take the crown. In fact, the film that ended up at number one in the country wasn't even a film initially released THIS YEAR. With the 3D release of popular Disney film The Lion King cleaning house and flexing it's still-potent drawing power, it cut a swath through the latest pretenders, including a remake of an obscure Dustin Hoffman film and a stunted attempt to reignite Sarah Jessica Parker's acting career. But the biggest tragedy of that September weekend is that Drive, a special highlight of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, suffered somewhat at the hands of an elderly animated carnivore. Granted, Drive and Lion King have different audiences. But for a movie that has so far garnered much praise from critics and screening audiences to finish second at the box office to a title that was first released in June of 1994 is never a good thing, and already interest in this Internet-hyped title has begun to dwindle. This is yet another speed bump in the recent push of actor Ryan Gosling's career, following an Academy Award snub for his lower-class romantic in Blue Valentine (granted, it was a packed field, but I would have at least nominated him). Put together by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive only recently appeared on my radar, but quickly became one of my more anticipated September releases thanks to its amazing visuals, unique and talented cast, and its not-so-subtle portrayal of Gosling as the nouveau Steve McQueen.

At least he's not driving angry...
Based on the 2005 James Sallis novel, Drive centers around an unnamed protagonist (Gosling) who works as a mechanic and Hollywood stunt driver by day and moonlights as a freelance getaway driver after the sun goes down. His boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) wants to expand into stock car racing, and approaches underworld Don Bernie Ross (Albert Brooks) for an investment, convincing him that he has the best driver available. Meanwhile, the driver's potential romance with neighbor and single mother Irene (Carey Mulligan) is cut short when Standard (Oscar Isaac), her husband and the father of her child, returns home from prison. Agreeing to help Standard settle prison debts, our hero is the victim of a deal gone bad, and a life of relative anonymity collapses as he finds himself with many enemies and precious few friends while he tries to right the wrongs that have been committed.

Let's see: guy with the shotgun vs. the big name actor? As if there's any doubt
While the story itself isn't much to speak of, the way it is told is almost masterful. You likely haven't heard of Refn, whose films haven't made much of a name for themselves on this side of the Atlantic. Arguably his biggest film, Bronson, isn't much known outside of breaking in future Hollywood "It" performer Tom Hardy, and that made more impact on DVD than it had in the theater. It must have caught the eye of Gosling however, who was given the chance to name Drive's director when he joined the film. Even early on, you can tell that Refn is a visually-talented director, with many of his camera shots eloquent and beautiful in their execution. He makes every shot perfect, whether framing wide to see an entire scene play out, or closing in on someone's face at the PERFECT angle, not unlike the 2010 Anton Corbijn film The American. While he does some very close shots during car chase scenes, it never serves to confuse the audience as to what is happening on screen, and that is important because I've never seen a director who take that level of responsibility and handle it so smoothly.

Okay, she even LOOKS a little like Michelle Williams...
Refn's talent is such that when he suddenly turns into something of a European Robert Rodriguez, it is so surprising. With a first half of a film that is almost violence free, you don't expect it when the whole thing turns unabashedly bloody. All of the sudden we're subjected to shotgun blasts, exploding heads, stabbings, drownings, crushed skulls, sliced wrists, and just about anything remotely uncomfortable to watch in one setting. I mean, I knew there had to be a reason for the film's R rating, but for the film to take such a turn was so completely unpredictable and speaks to the director's tact and balance. That Refn even makes the violence watchable (albeit through the gaps in your fingers) is stellar, as it is not detracting at all from his amazing camerawork.

Despite his preparation, he never saw Simba coming.
Once again we have another stellar lead role for Gosling, who is destined to become the next big thing in Hollywood, even if audiences aren't completely behind him. Definitely composing an old-school vibe that's  reminiscent of McQueen while still very much being his own artist, Gosling is a force from beginning to end, as he threads those narrow routes from icy emotionless driver to reluctantly warm human being and back again. He is the best part of Drive by a good margin, and continues to be a joy to watch in any medium. It can't be long before he becomes the favorite in a Best Actor race, and who knows, he might just win. Sadly, Carey Mulligan is a mere victim/love interest, although she is at least believable as such. While it may not be as dull as he role in the Wall Street sequel, she's still a far way away from showing the initiative that made her breakout role in 2009's An Education such a novelty. There are some brave casting choices here, but picking Albert Brooks as the film's heavy was one of pure genius. More known for his comedies, Brooks manages to actually steal some of Gosling's limelight (not too much, mind you) with his smarmy crime lord. Bryan Cranston continues to do great work in small roles, a nice side gig to his successful television career. There are some very good smaller parts on the menu, with talented actors taking their share. Between Ron Perlman's menacing gangster and Christina Hendricks as an icy stick-up artist Refn seems to choose the perfect embodiment of his characters. And that doesn't even account for Oscar Isaac, who we should hate because he was in prison and rivals the Driver for Irene's affections but is really a pretty good guy. Most of the film roles aren't cliches, and even those that are get some extra credit from the viability of those playing them, a rare sight indeed.

He's just about ready for his Oscar, America
In this age of 3D shark-jumping, plot-less scripts, and billion dollar motion pictures, a beautifully-shot and remarkably intelligent film is difficult enough to immediately find, let alone one that is successful. While the film sometimes slows down to a point where you could call it more patient than its audience, Drive overcomes this by making even these slow moments worth watching with enough eye-candy to make it one of the most visually appealing movies of the year. Opulence alone would be enough to place it among the year's best, but the excellent direction and amazing acting propel it to the top of my Top 10 list, square at #1. When you put this much talent together, good things can happen. And when that talent successfully puts something together with out-of-the-box thinking, it can only get better.

1 comment:

Jen said...

Thanks for your review. I like how you compared Refn to Rodriguez. I was vaguely reminded of the Grindhouse double feature when I saw this movie. I've watched it maybe 14 times already and it is a masterpiece.