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‘Drive’ reveals new possibilities of what cinema can be

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, September 23, 2011 8:03 am

I’m generally cynical regarding the state of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, but the fact remains that there are a number of “great” movies released each year. They may seem few and far between, but carefully crafted, engaging, four-star movies still don’t qualify as an endangered species in the modern studio system.

However, it seems that films of true, unique, bold vision — movies that grab hold of your imagination, revel in the intoxicating power of the filmic image, and reveal new possibilities for what cinema can be — are more or less extinct, deemed to risky for financial backing and wide exposure in a culture that has made Kevin James into a box-office draw. The average moviegoer never even hears about them, if they’re even made at all.

“Drive” is such a film, and in what surely must be a miracle, it has not been abandoned on the arthouse circuit. On the contrary, it is playing in multiplexes across the U.S., and as of press time was the second-highest grossing film in general release (behind the re-release of “The Lion King,” naturally). To see a film of this caliber performing so well in wide release is inspiring, and goes to show that there is in fact a demand for this kind of thing among “mainstream” audiences. Studios should take note — and give director Nicolas Winding Refn (winner of the best director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) the money and creative control to do absolutely whatever the hell he wants from this point forward.

Admittedly, “Drive” seems tailor-made to my personal tastes, and it’s almost as if Refn has tapped into my subconscious and extracted everything I’ve ever wanted to see in an American thriller. I’ve heard the film described in many ways — as a Tarantino movie on quaaludes; a loose reworking of “Shane” directed by Michael Mann circa 1986; “Pretty in Pink” with a head-smashing scene — but no glib, high-concept description will suffice. Despite his clear influences and cinematic fetishes, Refn (the Danish filmmaker behind the “Pusher” trilogy and, more recently, “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising”) resists the urge to turn his Hollywood debut into an over-the-top celebration of pop-culture references or snobbish intertextual citations.

Clearly, Refn is obsessed with issues of genre, and how different genre tropes and character archetypes can be explored beyond their usual designation in pop culture. Here, he gives us a standard thriller plotline with what seems to be a standard Hollywood hero in The Driver (played by Ryan Gosling), a man with no name and no discernable past who moves through life as an observer. He works part-time as a stunt driver for action movies, but makes his real living by driving getaway for petty heists. He prefers to stay as removed from the situation as possible, allowing his clients only a five-minute window to take advantage of his services and get away clean.

In spite of his most basic instincts, he slowly becomes involved with his next-door neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her young son. But this newfound domestic tranquility is shattered when the boy’s father returns from prison with a debt hanging over his head. Determined to do what he can to protect the family from the dangerous mobsters threatening them, The Driver agrees to help with a heist that will repay the debt. When that robbery inevitably careens out of control with deadly consequences, our hero is left to save Irene and her son from the thugs who want to collect their loot and eliminate any witnesses.

This sounds like your typical Hollywood thriller, but just beneath the surface of this old-fashioned pot-boiler lies a fascinating, restrained, highly subversive character study. With The Driver, Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini have given us a character who in many ways fits the mold of the archetypal Hollywood hero. He’s good-looking, capable, driven, and is willing to do anything to protect the only innocent things in his life.

But he is also borderline autistic, strong and silent to the point that it’s clear he has no idea how to relate to people or experience “normal” human emotion at all. In the end, he is not painted as a psychopath (as some have inexplicably claimed) but as a legitimate hero with a violent heart of gold. Yet for all his good intentions and righteousness, there is something unshakably inhuman about The Driver. Refn takes that disconnect and runs with it, fashioning one of the most nuanced and troubling hero figures in all of modern cinema.

The cast is filled with great supporting players, most notably Albert Brooks (playing waaaaay against type) as the chief mobster villain and Bryan Cranston in a heartbreaking role as The Driver’s naïve boss. But it’s Gosling who owns the show — a striking feat when you consider that he has perhaps 30 lines of dialogue in the whole film. It’s a performance of infinite nuance, conveyed in subtle looks and gestures that speak volumes about his character and what, exactly, makes this guy tick like a time bomb waiting to detonate.

Much has been written about the violence contained in “Drive.” Many have dismissed it as excessive, but I must disagree. This is not an exploitative splatter-fest filled with unnecessary carnage, but a probing character drama punctuated by sudden outbursts of extraordinary violence. In Refn’s film, people are not props to be disposed of easily and without consequence. The violence in “Drive” is real and immediate, bloody and unforgiving and very, very brutal. The effect is like a punch in the gut.

But do not let the explicit violence turn you off seeing the film. The explicit violence takes up perhaps 90 seconds of the film’s 100-minute running length, and the rest of it is overflowing with some of the most beautifully rendered scenes and frames you will ever see. The perfectly realized sequences are too numerous to name: the opening heist and ensuing chase through the streets of L.A.; the botched pawn shop robbery, which achieves a level of slow-burn suspense that would make Hitchcock proud; The Driver donning a generic stuntman mask to stalk and kill one of the mobsters; a stolen kiss between our hero and Irene in an elevator, where the lights dim for one perfect, achingly beautiful moment before they come back up and reality returns with deadly force. The list goes on.

Even an early, uneventful scene set in the aisles of a grocery store is more visually stunning than anything else I’ve seen in other movies this year, or many other years for that matter. Quite simply, “Drive” is pure cinema — visually dazzling with a sophisticated (dare I say revolutionary?) sense of mise-en-scene, and an engaging story told in an unusual way with characters whose fates we are invested in. It’s the kind of film that leaves you feeling genuinely intoxicated, and eager to experience it again.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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