Sunday, September 18, 2011
"I used to produce movies in the 80s. Kind of action films, sexy stuff ... one producer called them European."
Albert Brooks, in the quote above, might as well have been describing the film he was currently in - Nicolas Winding Refn's sleek and stylish Drive. I had only seen one of Winding Refn's films before this, which was 2009's Bronson and which also incidentally announced to the world that Tom Hardy was made of awesome. I thought the film was interesting, epecially style-wise, but I wasn't in love with it like a lot of my movie nerd friends were, and I wondered if I would have responded differently if I had seen it with a bunch of them in a proper theater instead of by myself on my laptop. I was, however, completely excited about Drive after hearing about it from Cannes back in May.
I'd been counting down the days to seeing this, and had more than I wanted in adventure trying to lay eyes on it this weekend. I could have seen it first thing Friday morning, after work, and was tempted to do just that - such was my chomping at the bit. But I decided to make it a rare evening viewing - rare because it costs more than twice as much as AMC's morning screenings, and because it's difficult to find a showtime that's convenient with my work hours. It was important to me to see it with a good audience. I'd even put together a playlist with the film's (AMAZING) soundtrack and a bunch of 1980s songs that I thought had a similar chilly, urban vibe. There was some drama at the theater that night, and I was forced to wait another 24 hours, which drove me crazy. I was pretty exhausted by the time I hit the cinema and the movie was going to have to be pretty danged good to keep me awake.
Far from being pretty danged good, it was flipping awesome. Hands down, my favorite film of the year so far.
The film opens with a pulsing music track and credits that look like they were scrawled on a mirror in shocking pink lipstick. We meet Ryan Gosling's character, whose name we never learn (he is simply "the Driver"), and he's laying out the rules for his "getaway" services. If you've seen the trailer, you've heard this schpiel - his clients have him for five minutes. Whatever happens in that five minute window, he will get you out of there. If something goes wrong before the clock starts or after the five minutes is up, you're on your own. He speaks very directly and succinctly, and you get the feeling you should listen to him closely, because he's not the kind of person who repeats himself. We see him on a job like this, and where another movie would show you all manner of metal objects weaving in out of each other in furious pursuit and flight, Winding Refn starts slow, putting the focus on Gosling's face instead, and you can see the wheels turning behind his eyes. When the volume gets turned up, though, it's exhilirating. But even as the chase kicks up several notches, we still mostly stay on Gosling and watch as he shifts strategies (could I get any more automobile metaphors in here?) and tries to elude the police.
The Driver doesn't just do getaways; he's also a stunt driver for movies and does some work in a garage. He's kind of a genius with cars, and his boss Shannon (played by Bryan Cranston) tries to get him into racecar driving, with the help of crime boss Bernie (in a knockout performance by Albert Brooks, who is about the last person you'd imagine being as great as he is in a role like this). He also becomes involved (though not romantically - at least at first) with his neighbor Irene (the always excellent Carey Mulligan), who struggles as a waitress at Denny's while her husband is in prison. You can sense that the Driver likes to keep people at a distance, but his relationship with Irene is what sets the bulk of the film's action in motion. We see a man who is initially very reserved and calm (comparisons to Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver are not far off the mark here) become violent and scary in the defense of the innocent.
Nowhere in the film is this better crystalized than in what may be the centerpiece of the entire film, "The Elevator Scene." The Driver is going to walk Irene out of their apartment building, and they get into an elevator with a third person. We already know that the Driver is in danger, but when he looks sidelong at the stranger in the elevator, he spots a concealed gun and shit's officially real. But rather than ratchet up the adrenaline right away, the film slows down a bit and the Driver pushes Irene protectively behind him. He turns around and kisses her, presumably knowing that after what's about to happen this may be his only chance, and then proceeds to beat and kick the man to death as she looks on, part horrified, part exhilirated.
The film is quite violent, but what I love about it is that it doesn't fetishize the violence. There are cool weapons (I love that you rarely see a gun in this movie) but it doesn't wallow in the horror-show. What it does tend to linger on are the moments just before the violence occurs. I kept thinking, after this movie, about the Solozzo scene in The Godfather - that moment the camera seems to stay a bit too long on Al Pacino's face and you see, plain as day, the change that turns Michael Corleone from war hero to future crime boss, just before he guns down Solozzo and McCluskey. There's an especially operatic scene in Drive when Gosling's character dons one of his movie diguises (a rubber head mask) and goes to take out the penultimate baddie. The music choice here is inspired - the main theme from a film called Farewell Uncle Tom, which I saw at BNAT in 2007 and which is the most offensive movie I have ever seen, despite some excellent filmmaking elements, including the music. And for the length of the song - about three minutes (an eternity in movie time) - the Driver simply drives to where he's going and then looks through a window at his prey. You know for a certainty, just from the actor's eyes, that someone is about to die, probably painfully, because that's just what time it is.
This movie has been compared to early Michael Mann (think Thief or Manhunter) and William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. It even has a similar feel to Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, a vintage hit from BNAT last year, and the camera work was apparently inspired by Melville's work. The plot is not anything earth-shattering - typical biolerplate stuff - but plot is not what makes this movie extraodrinary. Style and love of cinema make this film something special. (And speaking of style, this movie gave me an intense desire to own a satin jacket and a pair of driving gloves - and I don't even drive anymore!)
Drive has the trappings of all those fantastic car movies of the 60s and 70s, the flash of 80s neo-noir, and the sensibility of a dark fairy tale. I don't see anything happening on the Oscar front for this movie - perhaps a supporting nod for Brooks (I'd be overjoyed if Gosling were recognized, but I don't dare hold my breath), but that's not because it's not great. It's absolutely fantastic. This was originally developed as a $60 million blockbuster starring Hugh Jackman. Nothing against Hugh, but I'm so glad *this* movie is what got made instead.