Saturday, September 17, 2011

From the opening credits in blazing pink brush script to the blaring retro-techno intro music, Drive will send you flashing back to a host of 80s heist and action flicks, from Thief to To Live and Die in LA.

And while Drive has a litany of influences, no need to raise the yellow flag of derivation, from Shane to Le Samourai, Director Nicolas Refn, who won best director for the film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, knows how to use his inspirations like spare parts from old classic cars to create a gorgeous new hot rod, which is a glory to see, built for speed, and alternately an exhilarating and terrifying ride.

The story is an existential study of a Hollywood stunt driver and getaway man-for-hire. He is a classic “man with no name”, who takes part in a heist that goes very wrong, all in an effort to protect the object of his unwise attachment, played by the luminous yet underused Carey Mulligan. This girl in the next apartment and her son, whom he has fallen for and befriended, are ignorant of the threat by her recently paroled husband’s old prison connections. As it always is with these tragic anti-heroes, it is up to him. To him she has done the near impossible of making him feel, and for that he will pay any price.

Not that he says as much. To say he is laconic is a vast understatement. These unnamed loners have to make us care about them, connect with them as an audience, using subtext almost exclusively. We know near nothing about him, and so we learn from his actions and his choice of the few words he uses, and we watch every slight change in his facial expressions. We all know whatever happened to him to make him rein himself in so, to teach him such self control, must have been monstrous.

Gosling builds his character by utilizing the external trappings like his satin bomber jacket with scorpion emblem, his ever-present toothpick, and his leather driving gloves. He can be menacing and when he dons the gloves, you know he means business. In moments, he goes from 0 to 60, from a likable laconic boy next door to a psychopath with a mission.

The debate rages on as fans say Gosling is the 21st Century’s answer to Marlon Brando, and haters call him an overrated, one dimensional, blank canvas. Whatever. Few actors are up to the challenge of carrying a movie where so few words and so many close ups decide whether we as an audience care who he is, what he wants, and if he lives or dies. Let’s just say as Gosling is concerned, I’m utterly sold and utterly smitten.

Perhaps Cinema Siren falls in love too easily. Alan Ladd in Shane. Alain Delon in Le Samourai. Even Kurt Russell in Soldier. There is a reason why the man with no name continues to be part of film history mythology. We know little about them, and yet we are made to feel so much…

And these anti-heroic films always have a such a visual poetry. Drive is no exception. The attention to detail in each scene, the camera angles, the lighting, the set decoration, words can’t describe the painterly way they are laid out. Rafn’s director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel does his part to draw us all in to the story by bathing the few idyllic scenes with Gosling and Mulligan in warmth and rich color.

There is much metaphor there too. Sharp, dark shadows against sunny brights; shots with Gosling looking back at the little boy in the rear view protectively, as the shadow falls on him—things like that. All these images add up over time. They also lull you and your eyes into a place of trust that is betrayed all the more with the rare all too real moments of ultra-violence, which left Cinema Siren, an old hand at bloodletting on film, splaying her fingers. The squeamish need not apply. I say again. If you can’t watch someone’s head being bashed in repeatedly, move along. This is not your movie.

Supporting actors also add volumes to the quality of the film, including Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, sympathetic and pathetic as Driver’s mentor and father figure Shannon; Christina Hendricks, hot and dangerous as the prerequisite femme fatale; and Albert Brooks, terrifying as an understated renegade so against type—with his razors and his manipulations, his placating lies—it will be a crime if Oscar doesn’t take notice.

Sure, most everyone is praising this film…Cinema Siren doesn’t bash just to be different. Hollywood is crowded with movies racing to become the next new classic. Make no mistake, this movie is a love it or hate it affair. Just like a midnight ride with a crazy friend who just happens to be great behind the wheel. You’ll either scream to get out, or you’ll strap yourself in, and get one of the rides of your life.