Drive just might be my favorite movie of 2011. Certainly it is my favorite movie of the year so far. I loved it. Hands down. It is one of those rare movies that I wouldn’t change a thing about, and I say that after going in with high hopes based on Valhalla Rising(director Refn’s previous effort).
Ryan Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. He begins to fall for the single mother next door (Carey Mulligan) and ends up drawn deeper into the criminal world than he ever wanted to go when her son’s father’s past catches up to his family. Things get more complicated from there.
This is not a Fast and Furious rip-off–sorry to disappoint those who wanted it to be. Yes, he is a driver, yes there are a couple awesome car sequences, yes there is a heist. But Drive is something more.
It starts slowly after the opening getaway drive sequence (which was a sort of prologue just to show what this driver does and how skilled he is). We spend time getting to know the characters of the driver (he is never named), Irene (the neighbor), and Irene’s son, and we form emotional attachments to them. Just when you begin to wonder if the film is going to go anywhere, it does. And then those emotional attachments become an anchor for you as you watch the shitstorm of violence and repercussions rage around these characters. With Drive, Refn accomplishes something he didn’t quite do—to be fair, was perhaps not trying to do—with Valhalla Rising, and that is to make you care about what happens. In Valhalla, I kept watching to see what happened next out of curiosity and prurient fascination with the violence that opened the movie. In Drive I kept watching because I was worried about what would happen. That emotional connection to the characters invested me in the situation.
That connection to the characters also made the violence seem not gratuitous but necessary. You want to see the right people die, because it meant the people you cared about would be that much safer. You revel in the graphicness of it because your feelings for Irene and her son make you feel the same rage and protectiveness the driver feels, and the fact that he feels them makes you like him even in the face of his vicious, brutal retaliations.
And the violence is vicious and brutal, make no mistake about that. This film is a hard R. It lives up to the expectations Refn created with Valhalla Rising, and the violence is only heightened by its juxtaposition with the sweetness of Irene.
The violence is also handled extremely well. It is often surprising—even when you sense it hovering, the moment and way in which it occurs will catch you off guard—and only graphic some of the time. For every exploding head, there is a death that happens just off-screen. Refn’s decision not to depict every single blow keeps those pieces of violence which are shown spectacular and intense, rather than having them get lost in a sea of escalating deaths. Refn also surrounds the violence with superb visuals. There is a scene in an elevator where almost angelic light surrounds Irene and the driver. There is a scene on a beach at night with a lighthouse running its cold beam over the fight in a horrifying revolving chiaroscuro. The final death is shown as shadows on the ground. Each of these scenes, and all the others, had unique and artistically chosen visuals built into them so that each death, each beating, each explosion of fury, is still clear in my mind.
Refn is a visual director in general, and that approach shapes the entire film, not just the violent scenes. He translates the style he used in Valhalla very well to the modern world—that is, minimal dialogue, a fearless embrace of the silent moments that happen in life, and showing the story in images rather than telling it in words. He uses music well, to highlight the aspects of a scene that he wants you to take away from it, so that the music takes the place of words and dialogue. Mulligan and Gosling, especially, do an excellent job of telling us everything with their expressions, their eyes and their small smiles, their throbbingly awkward silences early, and the anguish and rage and fear later.
Drive accomplishes several difficult tasks. It creates a love triangle that I didn’t actually mind (normally that is a plot device I loathe), it maintains its inscrutability until the end so that you’re never sure what will happen next, and it delivers the perfect ambiguous ending. It offers a commercial appeal but is an artistically designed film. It combines the best of sweetness and brutality and entwines them so inextricably they can only heighten one another.
I have not been able to get this movie out of my head since watching it, and I can’t wait to see it again.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.