Dir. Nicholas Winding Refn. U.S.A. 2011.

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If you are looking for wall-to-wall CGI effects, bodies piling up in the streets, and one-dimensional characters, stay away from Danish director Nicholas Refn's intelligent character study, Drive. Based on a novel by James Sallis and adapted for the screen by Hossein Amini, Drive is not a fast-paced action thriller but, in spite of its violence, a film of style and mood that has a European feel to it, in the tradition of Melville's Le Samourai. Ryan Gosling, in one of his best performances, is a reticent garage mechanic and movie stunt driver during the day, but at night, a getaway driver for small-time crooks. We are offered no information on his background or how he came to be where he is. He is called only the driver because he drives.  

The film opens with a stunning sequence in which the driver commands a getaway car after a theft by two hoodlums. He manages to elude police by using his knowledge of the L.A. city streets and by being just a bit cleverer than those who are pursuing him in their cars and helicopters. Drive takes a different turn when the tight-lipped loner forms a tentative connection with his next door neighbor, single mom Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benecio (Kaden Leos). Although she will not turn against her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) who is in prison, the driver's interest helps her to go on with her life.

Supported by an eclectic soundtrack, the first half of the film is quiet but filled with palpable tension. The driver is a reticent man who shows little surface emotion, but we can sense that underneath he is an explosive device, wired and waiting to detonate. When he does, we may wish for the quiet time. Though the film belongs to Gosling who establishes himself as one of the premier actors of our day, Drive also has a superb secondary cast that includes Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as a menacing crime duo. When Standard is released, instead of having a fit of jealousy, he accepts the driver's offer to help him fend off some of these crime kingpins to whom he is in big trouble because of an unpaid debt. 

Standard and the driver concoct a scheme to rob a pawn shop, but it is not well thought out and goes very wrong, putting the driver on his heels, having to avoid the determined thugs who are now relentlessly pursuing him. The driver is now up against ruthless killers, and must use all of his mental and physical attributes to stay alive and protect the people in his life he most cares about. Drive has a lot of violence, but it is not the kind of dehumanized violence that we see so often in the movies, the kind that deadens our feelings and atrophies our moral sense of human worth. Refn doesn't hold back on the blood, but makes us feel its repellent horror and agony even though we know that, for the driver, it is kill or be killed. Drive may often be difficult to watch, but if you give it the green light, you may find a sweet payoff at the end of the road. 


Howard Schumann

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