Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn debuted in 1996 with the smash hit “Pusher”; a dark violent drama about junkies in Copenhagen, and starring Bond-villain-to-be Mads Mikkelsen. He followed this success with another dark, Danish drama, before making his first English language movie, the failure “Fear X” starring John Turturro. After this, Refn’s movies were more miss than hit. The two “Pusher” sequels weren’t very good, I found “Bronson” annoyingly pretentious, while the dirty and gory Viking flick “Valhalla Rising” was boring as hell.
Refn’s latest movie, the American production “Drive”, snatched itself the Best Director award at Cannes earlier this year, and it’s a very — very — hyped film. Is it worthy of the hype?
Yes. “Drive” is by far Nicolas Winding Refn’s best movie. This is a great little movie which deserves a big, world-wide audience — which it probably won’t get because of a couple of reasons. I’ll get back to those reasons a little later.
Ryan Gosling is a stunt driver, simply billed as “driver” in the credits. He’s great at his job. More that great — he’s downright amazing. But besides performing stunts in movies, he moonlights as a “wheelman” — he drives the getaway car when robbers escape from the crime scene. The driver doesn’t belong to a gang, he’s freelancing; criminals hire him and they have to stick to the driver’s rules. Five minutes. If they aren’t back in the car after five minutes, the driver is gone.
The quiet, soft spoken, friendly driver moves into a new apartment, and befriends his neighbor Irene (the wonderful Carey Mulligan) and her little son. Irene’s husband is in prison, and the driver spends lots of time with the sweet Irene, who represents warmth and innocence in his dark, cold and brutal world. The driver seems to be falling in love with his lovely neighbor.
Then Irene’s husband is released. It turns out he owes some very, very bad guys money, and needs the driver’s help. The heist that follows goes wrong and the driver suddenly realizes there’s a contract on him. The driver, Irene and her son’s lives are in danger.
The ones who expect and stunt packed actioner in the vein of the “Fast and the Furious” series or the “Transporter” trilogy will be disappointed. “Drive” is far from your average action thriller. I wouldn’t label it an action movie — nor a thriller. This is more of a drama, albeit with gangsters and violence. An existential crime drama.
OK, those reasons why I don’t think Refn’s movie won’t become a blockbuster … Well, first of all, “Drive” is much too arty for the mainstream audience. Face it: “Drive” in an art house movie. It’s pretty slow-paced and low-key. It doesn’t have any Yippee-Ki-Yeah characters. It doesn’t look like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. It looks like a film festival movie, like something that plays and wins awards at Cannes.
And the other reason is the violence. “Drive” is probably waaay too gruesome for the average movie goer. The violence in this movie is unexpected, shocking and extremely gory. One guy has his head stomped into minced meat. And the scene with the shotgun … Ahem … Well, that made the audience jump and scream. The violence here isn’t fun splatter, like in “Final Destination 5” (which I, by the way, liked), in “Drive”, it’s just nasty.
But if you can take the excessive violence, “Drive” is a remarkable movie. The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan is great, there’s a wonderful scene after they’ve just met, in which they’re just looking at each other for a very long time. There’s no dialogue and the scene doesn’t need any. Refn’s movie is filled with scenes like this one.
There are more excellent actors and performances in the movie. Albert Brooks is great as a gangster you don’t want to meet in a dark alley — or anywhere else. Ron Perlman is of course also great as another gangster. Bryan Cranston is likable as the mechanic the driver works for. And what do you know if Hollywood legend Russ Tamblyn from “West Side Story” and who was Dr. Jacoby in “Twin Peaks” doesn’t show up! … And Ryan Gosling is perfect in the lead.
“Drive” has quite stunning cinematography and a pretty cool soundtrack. The movie is based on a novel by James Sallis and I guess some will compare “Drive” to the works of Quentin Tarantino. Well, Nicolas Winding Refn is also a big connoisseur of B-movies and grindhouse fare, and sure, there are certain similarities with Tarantino’s movies, but as a whole, I’d say that “Drive” is a different type of picture.
No matter what type of picture this is, “Drive” is one of the best movies of 2011. Check it out!
“Drive” had its world premiere at Cannes in May 2011. It opens in the States on September 16, in the UK on September 23, and in Sweden on November 18.
Images: Richard Foreman copyright © 2011 Drive Film Holdings, LLC. All Rights Reserved.