Friday, September 16, 2011

A Driver's Precision And Percolation In Los Angeles

Ryan Gosling as The Driver in "Drive", directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, September 16
, 2011

Supremely atmospheric and steeped in noir, Nicolas Winding Refn ("Bronson", "Valhalla Rising") crafts mood and menace to near perfection in "Drive", which opened today across the U.S. and Canada.

Ryan Gosling ("crazy, stupid, love", "Blue Valentine") in a strong yet understated performance, channels the sure-handedness of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name and the super cool of Steve McQueen in "Bullitt" as a Hollywood movie stunt driver in Los Angeles moonlighting as a getaway driver for criminals.  Known as The Driver, he scarcely emotes and gazes into space.  He wears a white jacket with a golden scorpion on the back.  He will sting, and it will hurt. 

The Driver gets in over his head protecting Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single parent in his apartment building.  He works in a body shop refurbishing cars and engines for his boss (Bryan Cranston) who has connections to a petty Hollywood mogul/gangster, played superbly by Albert Brooks.  Mr. Brooks is so good as Bernard Rose that while watching him I didn't know that it was him I was watching.  The casual, calm "Uncle Bernie" and the abrupt shift arising from Mr. Brooks' gruff comedy and blunt, dangerous portrayal typifies the L.A. "smiles and cries" that Ethan Hawke spoke of in "Training Day" ten years ago.  It's a tour de force work that thoroughly merits Oscar consideration.  Mr. Brooks blindsides you, and like an earthquake, I never saw him coming.  It's the best supporting performance I've seen this year.  He's as comfortable as a razor.  A showcase of streetwise villainy run amok.  Bernie is a tactician, a chess master, but chess isn't the game he plays.

The opening minutes of "Drive" may be the very best parts of the film, a fantasy adventure of mysticism, adrenaline and balletic maneuvering punctuating a slow-motion heartbeat.  Everything about "Drive" is muted, stifled, even incomplete, with events that percolate beneath the surface before sudden, extreme violence erupts.  People hardly speak but some who do talk tough and loud.  The suspense is in silences and prolonged glances.  The nighttime is the right time, and Mr. Refn, who specializes in atmospheres you can smell, taste and feel if not get lost in, conjures a Los Angeles reminiscent of late 1970s and mid-1980s dramas.  Rough and beautiful, "Drive" is a cousin to films like Michael Mann's "Thief" and William Friedkin's "To Live And Die In L.A.", although Mr. Friedkin's gritty, lurid drama is a sunnier, more flamboyant film, if no less violent than "Drive".

Albert Brooks, superb as Bernie Rose in "Drive", directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.  FilmDistrict

"Drive" is a thinking-man's drama with muscular edges.  The film purrs, hums and shocks.  The Driver is his job.  He has a feel and precision for time and an uncanny ear for trouble.  "Drive" is very sensual, as is The Driver, a throwback, a man without relationships or connections but intimately familiar with the electricity of danger, the night, and spontaneous energy.  A loner, he's irrevocably fused with his only love: cars.  He symbolizes the disconnect and alienation from culture that L.A. is often criticized for yet personifies its iconic car culture.  There's a slick, humorous moment early on where Mr. Refn extols L.A. pretension, as The Driver gets lost in an exiting crowd of Los Angeles Clippers basketball fans at Staples Center.  The director tips his hat to illusion and elusiveness, all in one, and it's a deft magic trick, with a wink.

A monosyllabic sort who speaks with actions and few words, The Driver chooses his weapons carefully.  He turns on a dime like Mr. Brooks' Bernie Rose does, and while the latter is showier and wicked, Mr. Gosling allows feeling and fuel to gird the mental (and mechanical) state of the mercurial loner he creates, a borderline antihero if ever there was one.  The Driver, of Hollywood, at least in his trade, doesn't believe in Hollywood storybooks or neat endings, nor does "Drive", which feels like a seedy, toxic Tinseltown waiting to explode with the most venal and vicious figures on its block.  The Driver doesn't have time to live for the moment even though the director often freezes it.

Ms. Mulligan, looking like a porcelain handmaiden-in-distress as Irene, is part of Mr. Refn's painting, bleeding with soul, and graceful in a sad way.  Irene is suffocated by her circumstances, which include a boyfriend (Oscar Isaac) in prison for a violent crime.  She wants to make a connection in the City Of Angels, an unforgiving and unglamorous place in "Drive", but Irene looks removed from everything in this sprawling, isolated metropolis.  Often unpredictable, "Drive" is potent, visceral artistry, and the director throws splashes of blood at his canvas, including on his lead character who is as sure to get his hands bloody as he is oily. 

Mr. Refn immerses us in a world of electro pop beats marked by Cliff Martinez's great music score (also last week's "Contagion") and John Woo-like opera theatrics but these and other elements are solid motifs that paper over an undistinguished script by Hossein Amini (based on James Wallis's novel.)  "Drive" however, doesn't have time for intricacies of built-in plot for plot's sake but we know that when a gangster and henchman (Ron Perlman) trips on a metaphorical banana peel, they'll be hell to pay.

With: Christina Hendricks, Kaden Leos, Ross Tamblyn.

"Drive" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity.  The film's duration is one hour and 42 minutes.

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