FILM REVIEW: Drive (2011, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

7.5 out of 10

I love pleasant surprises.

Because for some reason, I went into this movie thinking it was going to be a mindless, unsatisfying action flick. That’s what the trailer made it look like! However, Drive is actually a dark, contemplative film, constantly threaded with suspense even in the film’s most langourous moments. The film might be a bit of an uneven experience, but it is never boring, and its stylized atmosphere is noteworthy in and of itself.

Drive barrels out of the gate with its best foot forward. In the fantastic opening sequence, Ryan Gosling’s character (whose name we never find out, and which I didn’t even realize until I looked at the film’s IMDb page) serves as getaway driver to a pair of robbers, a wonderfully understated action sequence that features the typical stretches of screeching high-speed chases as well as tense moments of Gosling and the robbers simply lying in wait in the shadows, hoping for a passing cop car to go by without noticing them. The cinematography in this scene is unlike any employed for its Hollywood chase-scene counterparts, filmed in looming angles and shifting lights that turn night-time Los Angeles into an alien city floating through a void of blackness.

What the film does wrong is in not having more of those sequences. After this outstanding opening the film digresses into a slowly-paced, mute story about Gosling’s relationship with his next-door neighbour, played by Carrie Mulligan. The two spend a long time walking around and looking at each other and falling in love in slow-motion shots overlaid with 80’s disco music; we don’t actually see all that much of their relationship on-screen (although what we do see sure takes a long time to happen), but Mulligan and Gosling are so convincing in their roles that their facial expressions alone seem to fill in the gaps in the story’s emotional progression.

However, while the film does spend perhaps too much time meandering about in a psychological haze, it is actually a very intriguing and artistic haze. The numb, static energy and meticulously unnatural lighting of the film’s slower passages present a world as seen through the eyes of someone who hasn’t slept in days, floating disconnected outside of reality. The movie is also very spare with its dialogue, making its atmosphere even more ominous and surrealistic. In fact, I wonder if the film might not be better with less dialogue or even without any at all, because the dialogue we do get after such long silences is often underwhelming and can even break the serious tone that the film constructs so purposefully.

We do eventually return to a more action-packed state of affairs after the time spent exploring Gosling’s relationship with his neighbour Irene and all of her woes, but it’s not the same experience as what opened the movie. The tension and pacing does ramp up to an extent (although always taking its time when it so desires), but there are often shocking bouts of violence that seem out of place in the otherwise subtle film (I did at one point pull my coat up over my eyes like the wuss that I am). There’s a little more outright mayhem than clever suspense, but Gosling’s character is cracking up under various pressures, so a little cinematic insanity might be warranted.

Ryan Gosling’s performance in this movie is noteworthy on its own, but without drawing attention to itself; most of the time he’s just sitting around looking very, very unsettling. You rarely know what’s going on in his mind, but you don’t really want to, and in some ways it’s splattered all over the style of the movie anyway. He starts out seeming like a trustworthy guy with some sort of underlying creepiness streak, and then goes off the rails to the point where he is truly terrifying, but you never quite forget that you did at one point trust him and still might. Even when he’s threatening to do a guy’s head in with a hammer, some irrational part of you is rooting for him.

I would almost say that the cinematography and stylization of this film justifies a viewing in and of itself. It’s certainly a unique and riveting experience; this movie tastes different from other movies, and I wish more movies would at least try to incorporate the same kind of flavor: a little less flash, and a little more quiet, pulsating intensity.

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One thought on “FILM REVIEW: Drive (2011, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

  1. CMrok93 says:

    I feel a little bit guilty saying that Drive needed more driving. When the action comes it is tense and artfully done without shying away from the extreme violence, but that all starts to go away as soon as the characters start talking, or sighing and looking at each other. Nice review.

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