September 18, 2011
“Drive” star Ryan Gosling has a face fit for a superhero — appropriately, the 31-year-old “Notebook” and “Blue Valentine” star has made a career out of playing the good guy. The gentle, quiet approach to his roles has made him a subtle director’s dream and a teenage girl’s sweetheart, combining to create one of the most legitimate, marketable stars of our time. “Drive” is no different, but it takes the actor deeper into the introvert that his pensive, seemingly unfettered visage perpetually guards.
Gosling plays the Driver — our unnamed action-over-talk stunt driver protagonist who doubles as a freelance getaway man for heist jobs. Much like Jason Statham’s turn as Frank in the “Transporter” series, Gosling’s Driver is a structured, my-way-or-the-highway dude who keeps his mouth shut just about all the time. The very first scene of the film shows him drive a getaway Chevy Impala for a pair of thieves, maneuvering through downtown Los Angeles, alternating between a police frequency and a Clippers game radio broadcast.
We soon get to know the Driver outside of his criminal accessory role — he’s a quiet stunt driver who works in a repair shop and is on the verge of becoming a stock car driver for a couple of L.A. businessman/thugs (Albert Brooks, “Finding Nemo” and Ron Perlman, “Hellboy”). He meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan, “An Education”) and her son Benicio (newcomer Kaden Leos). Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac, “Robin Hood”) is in prison, and in his stead the Driver quickly assumes a protective role over mother and child.
When Standard is released from jail, our protagonist’s conflict kicks in — Standard can’t escape from his past, particularly his past creditors, and that same past threatens to come after Irene and Benicio. The Driver befriends the father — despite his affections for his wife — and chooses to help him do a job and get the money he needs. And as one might expect, things go wrong. Really, really wrong. Suddenly, the Driver becomes the target, running and driving for his life — and more importantly, for Irene and Benicio’s lives.
The fascinating transformation in “Drive” is the Driver’s shift from indifference to purpose — like Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in “Taxi Driver,” the protagonist in “Drive” explodes outwards by digging deep into his own subconscious and doing vengeful things he could only have imagined. The fruit for the viewer is momentary — it’s the look on his face when he shocks even himself — like an innocent child bearing witness to murder, the shock becomes another obscuring layer in his mind. As he opens himself up to us by releasing his violent tension, he simultaneously closes himself off to the film’s other characters, to whom he is suddenly a completely different person.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (the “Pusher” trilogy) and writer Hossein Amini (“Shanghai”) don’t fully develop the film’s backstory and characters — and purposefully so. In a film where each supporting character’s past is his or her handicap and downfall, a protagonist with no more than a face and a job becomes the one-eyed man, king of the film’s conflict and the only person with the freedom to be the good guy.
It’s a violent, bloody film with classic touches dating decades back, despite its contemporary setting. Most noticeable are its retro ’80s-style pink font and synth-backed music selections, which indeed hearken to images of a masculine-type shadowy vigilante patrolling the streets of L.A., albeit one shot on now-grainy film stock, not on the beautiful Arri Alexa camera footage “Drive” employs.
When the brutal final scenes of the film hit magic hour — that evening time when sunlight shines straight on — the mood of the film is already set; the crimes that were once limited to the nighttime have oozed into the daylight and taken over our protagonist’s life. Like Butch Cassidy or Bonnie and Clyde, he can only drive so far from his problems.
With a strong cast fronted by the stone-faced Gosling, “Drive” is an engrossing ensemble picture that will kill you with quiet. The loud revving of a car becomes a comfort in its convention; at a certain point, silence leaves far too much deadly possibility for our characters. Ryan Gosling has described this film as his superhero movie, and the comparison rings true — it’s the bubbling-under-the-surface, superficially calm hero pic with a hell of a bite. Like Gosling’s face covered in a splash of blood midway through the second act, it’s a car colliding with an unsuspecting audience. It will shock you, and then calm you, only to leave you open to the next bloody smack in the face. And all throughout, we carry the understanding that our Driver is on the same page, the innocent passenger on the most perilous ride of his life.
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