Although the most prominent marketing in Australia for the release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s fantastic new film Drive has been the reports of legal action taken in America by one disgruntled viewer who felt the trailer suggested a film closer to the Fast and Furious franchise than a classic noir thriller, this does the film a great injustice. Accomplished filmmaking of this sort should be shouted from the rooftops, not become the focus of the ‘Odd Spot’ sections in major newspapers. Thankfully, the local critical response is overwhelmingly positive.
Ryan Gosling plays a movie stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver whose insistence on laying out clear and concise parameters around his involvement means he is one of the best in his class. He is never named, known only as ‘Driver’, and has only limited social contact with his boss (Bryan Cranston as Shannon). When he meets his new neighbours Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio, however, he will be drawn into a criminal conspiracy that will force him to break all his rules to ensure his new friends’ safety.
There is little new in the premise of Drive, with the loner gun-for-hire an archetype of long standing, and the disaster of deciding to abandon his own instincts a similarly commonplace plot device. What is remarkable about Drive, however, is the assurance with which Refn and his cast deal with the material. The film features a wonderful opening sequence that defines the lead character and his world with effortless grace, and then follows that bravura entrée with a perfectly measured spiral into brutality and darkness.
Refn seems to know exactly how long to linger, and just when his film needs to shift gears. He is happy to spend prolonged sequences with Gosling and Mulligan sharing minimal dialogue, and yet his characters never lose their audience’s interest. Gosling is tasked with the sullen outsider role, and manages to maintain empathy despite giving so little away. His long stares and grunted responses mean he is a hard man to like, but the brief glimpses Refn allows of Driver’s heart become all the more important for their scarcity. Mulligan is almost perfectly cast in a role that easily could have seemed beyond her. She manages the natural wariness of the single mother unexpectedly well, and balances toughness with vulnerability in a performance of dexterity.
The supporting cast is superb, with Albert Brooks, Cranston and Ron Perlman all absolutely nailing their roles. Brooks is particularly memorable, playing against type so confidently it might shock many who know him mostly for his more recent roles in fairly average comedies like The In-Laws. Perlman is at least on familiar ground, but certainly seems to be enjoying himself. Unfortunately, Christina Hendricks is given very little to do in a role that seems hardly worthy of her skills.
Drive is a bleak and violent excursion into the Los Angeles underbelly – a description that could apply to many of the modern noir genre – yet it stands above most of its peers due to deft timing and memorable performances. Refn’s film knows just when to accelerate and when to cruise, and he has coaxed brilliance from Gosling and Mulligan that alone is worth the admission price. That he wraps it all so tightly into a package of only 100 minutes length is the final virtue. Highly recommended.Rating: