Drive: An Existential Character Study (film review)

by jasmine

As September draws to a close and we move into October, one film has left me completely verklempt in its dust.

Director Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive is an exquisite work of juxtaposition.  It’s art-house action with stylistic direction; shimmering, lingering cinematography, straining moments of silence; bouts of fervent brutality, underscored by an ethereal pulsating soundtrack reminiscent of eighties Euro-pop.  And at the crux of the story is a compelling existential character study.  Not quite what I was expecting upon purchasing my movie ticket.

You’ll have to forgive the intentional and unintentional puns that find their way into this review for I’m writing purely on instinct.  And it’s instinct that really drives this film home for me (see!).

Ryan Gosling brings gripping nuance to the anonymous “Driver”, a mechanical mechanic/occasional Hollywood stunt driver/aspiring stock car racer moonlighting behind the wheel of a getaway car.  The film opens with a stunning car sequence, with credits bearing semblance to Vice City, that is visually sharp, masterly, intense and intricate with Driver victoriously engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase with LA’s finest.  I know I’m in for quite the ride.

Driver is stoic, quiet and isolated – and we’re given virtually none of his backstory.  He’s a man defined by what he does, “I drive…,” he says.  Gosling is innately arresting as the understated antihero with all but two lines within the first 20 minutes of the film, but his taciturnity and mannerisms say more than any amount of dialogue.  With every grip of the wheel, clench of the fist, chewing of a toothpick, half-smirk and telling eyes, you can see the wheels in his head spinning.  We all know Gosling is a man of distinction, and only someone of his caliber could pull off a role like this.

Independently, Driver is mysteriously robotic and glimmers of his humanity are revealed only in the interactions he shares with others.  He’s got a fond relationship with his manager, Shannon – Bryan Cranston bringing gutting sympathy to this paternal figure, perpetually down on his luck.  In the midst of navigating the concrete grids of Downtown Los Angeles, he develops a chaste relationship with his neighbor, Irene, played by Carey Mulligan who turns out a tepid performance at best – and in my opinion, intentionally so (she’s a young mother, raising her young son on her own while her husband serves time on the cell block as she waitresses at a diner.  I’d be unenthused about my life too).  Subsequently, he forms a protective friendship with Irene’s son, Benicio (Kaden Leos).

After a few dawdling moments of a promised romance, Irene’s ex-con husband, Standard (Oscar Issac) returns home a semi-free man – he’s got one final debt to pay.  Aspiring for a life of purpose beyond shifting gears, Driver acts on instinct, offering Standard his final 5 minutes in a heist to eradicate his arrears.  But things go tragically awry…

I don’t want to reveal too much more of the story beyond this point, but what lies ahead is a visceral peeling of layers.  As I mentioned, this film is a story about instinct; a discovery of what instinctively drives a human being.

Throughout the film, Driver’s signature “Scorpion” jacket serves as a motif as it wears the stains of his journey.  Drive references the fable, “The Scorpion and the Frog,” in which the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, the frog would sink and the scorpion would drown with it. The frog consents and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature.

The fable is used to illustrate that the natural behavior of creatures can be irrepressible, no matter the consequences.  In this story, Driver is the scorpion and consequently, that makes Albert Brooks the frog.  Brooks brilliantly plays against type as Bernie, the criminal kingpin.  His performance is menacing laced with a bit of dark humor, and if he doesn’t get some kind of accolade, I might weep.  Brooks is Drive’s secret weapon, and his artistry with a blade  is disturbingly stunning.

As the story accelerates further into Driver’s psyche, it’s crystal clear as to why he never previously carried a gun – Driver is capable of such a vitriolic degree of carnage, it was unsettling to watch.  And while the gratuitous violence might’ve been overkill, it’s evident that it’s indicative to Driver’s characterization.  His unrelenting will to escape his idle isolation tapped into his humanity.  Animalistic and uncontrollable.  It made me wonder if that’s why he made himself appear so phlegmatic.

Overall, Drive is built on tension and tone.  The anticipation was all consuming and anxiety-inducing.  The silence dominating the film was deafening.  The direction was sharp and hypnotizing, with scintillating, drawn out cinematography.  The pulse of the film was the throbbing and enrapturing soundtrack composed by Cliff Martinez.  This score stands to rival that of 2010’s The Social Network – the genius collaboration of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  This sonic landscape enhanced the feeling of the movie, and flawlessly moves the emotional trek of the characters forward.  The lead single, “A Real Hero,” by College featuring Electric Youth is the very essence of Driver’s tale.

In an attempt to sum up my entire experience with this film, I continue to go back to the term ‘visceral’.  Aside from the actors delivering visceral portrayals of their characters, this movie penetrated my viscera.  My body and mind were completely engrossed from start to end – everything creeping, crawling under my skin.

Drive is not for the faint of heart, but neither is humanity…

Title:  Drive

Director:  Nicholas Winding Refn

Writer:  Hossein Amini (screenplay) and James Sallis (book)

Cast:  Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Issac, Christina Hendricks and Kaden Leos

Original Music by:  Cliff Martinez

Cinematography:  Newton Thomas Sigel