Cannes Movie Review: Drive (2011)

Ryan Gosling in Drive
Photo: FilmDistrict

As blood dripped down Ryan Gosling’s face in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive the Cannes audience couldn’t help but laugh. It wasn’t a laugh as a result of something funny, it was a laugh of relief as this year’s Cannes Film Festival has offered an abundance of diversity and Drive appears to be the aggressive, head-stomping capstone. But as violent and intense as this film can be, it has its share of honest laughs and silent moments, making for the best film I saw at this year’s festival. As far as who deserves the credit — sit back — there are a lot of kudos to be handed out.

Let’s begin with Ryan Gosling, who turns in stoic and steely performance as Driver, an auto mechanic, Hollywood stuntman and potential stock car racer that occasionally moonlights as a criminal getaway driver. Yeah, he keeps himself busy. Stone-faced and nearly emotionless, Gosling creates a character that’s calm and cool under pressure, methodical, focused and reliable and, of course, one hell of a driver.

We’re witness to Driver’s skills at the outset, though this opening scene is merely a taste of what the film has to offer in terms of action-based entertainment, but it’s as good a start as any. As the scene comes to a close Refn makes way for the opening titles, which are scrawled in the same font used for Prince’s Purple Rain, which is only appropriate considering Refn’s frequent use of ’80s-esque pop music, a trend he welcomingly continues with Drive.

However, just as much as this film enjoys the unique punch given by its score and song selection, much can also be gleaned from what isn’t heard. Driver isn’t prone to mindless chatter and his character’s silence harkens back to the rock hard heroes and anti-heroes played by the likes of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. Men of action not words. Driver is that man, even in his more intimate moments as we come to know his lovely next-door neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan).

Irene lives at home with her son Benicio (Kaden Leos) while her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), sits in prison. Irene and Driver share an immediate, though innocent, connection, and as they grow closer to one another so does he to Benicio.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t stop for a moment here to mention the scenes Gosling and Mulligan share. Primarily silent in terms of dialogue, these are scenes where more is said when nothing’s said at all. I can’t for the life of me think of a romance (maybe Before Sunset?) that placed so much confidence in so little being said. It’s an absolute understanding of human communication by both screenwriter Hossein Amini and Refn and a lot of filmmakers and screenwriters could learn from it.

Getting back to the details, the mood shifts when Standard gets out of prison as Driver is now on the outside looking in, but not for long as Standard owes some bad people a lot of money and in an attempt to help clear him of his debt and keep Irene and Benicio safe, Driver agrees to serve as wheelman during a pawn shop hold up. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, the heist goes incredibly wrong, leading to one hell of a car chase sequence that ultimately concludes with the image of Gosling’s blood-splattered face I mentioned in the opening. It’s ten minutes that are as entertaining as anything else I’ve seen at the fest over the last nine days.

Now, with a duffle bag of cash in his possession and a need to keep himself and those he cares for safe, Driver must figure out how he’s going to turn the tide to his favor. Not one to mince words, Driver picks up a hammer and introduces another man to his a shoe as it pounds on his face over, and over, and over, and over again. If you thought Jessica Alba got beat up in The Killer Inside Me, I wonder what your impression of this poor bloke’s demise will be.

It must be said, though, Drive isn’t a one-man show. In fact, supporting performances by Albert Brooks (Broadcast News), Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) and Ron Perlman (Cronos) are all excellent, each bringing their own bit of flavor to the feature.

Cranston plays Shannon, Driver’s manager/boss, as something of a bottom feeder with a dream. He sets him up on a few getaway gigs, oversees his stunt work and employs him at his auto shop. His noticeable limp comes as a result of being on the wrong side of the criminal underworld in the past, which means he’s taking a risk once again when he decides to ask Bernie Rose (Brooks) for some money to help fund a stock car racing team with Driver behind the wheel.

Brooks is a gem as Rose. He’s a wheeler and dealer with shady backers and when he decides to help Shannon out he does so by bringing in mob boss wannabe Nino played by Ron Perlman who takes advantage at every opportunity to play this character over the top and with each instance you only want to see more. The scenes with Perlman and Brooks together are perfect, one of them ending with blood and an “adieu” that had the audience rolling.

Finally, we come to Refn, a director I can’t get enough of since seeing Bronson two years ago, a film I will never grow tired of. Refn is a no apologies kind of director. He puts on screen what he wants, not what focus groups determined sells best. His are films major Hollywood studios won’t make, but will pilfer for new talent as they did when Christopher Nolan snatched up Bronson‘s Tom Hardy for Inception.

The signature on Drive is all Refn, from the music down to the mood. He strips his films down to the point they don’t exactly hit reality, but a hyper-reality where you can at once connect to the characters, but also revel in the entertainment of its absurdity. Refn’s talents know no limits, his combination of action-packed bloody mayhem tied with his patience to include appropriately lengthy moments of silence show a director in control of his environment. Add to that a continually impressive talent for casting the right people and you have a film you will want to watch over and over again.

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