Drive ★★★★★

"Drive" has one of the greatest opening scenes of all time. A man helps a couple of criminals get away from a heist. Really, that's all that happens in this scene. It is the height of simplicity, to be honest. But, as with almost everything about "Drive", it's not so much what happens as it is the WAY that it happens. From that description you'd think you were in for a simple car chase (as in a similar scene, description-wise, from 2002's "The Transporter") but the scene isn't just a car chase. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) doesn't just drive fast. In his hands a car is a precision instrument, capable of doing damned near anything. He's like an automotive ninja, actually. The scene is therefore less about movement than stillness and quiet.

"Drive" is a STUDY in stillness and silence. The Driver rarely speaks, with his mouth, but his body language and expressions and reactions speak volumes. I have heard that the script originally gave Gosling more dialogue but that he talked director Nicolas Winding Refn into excising most of it. He was right to do so. Most movie characters talk tough and Gosling does get some brutal bits of dialogue (like the one about kicking someone's teeth in) but those bits of speech are ten times more effective because he speaks so rarely. Gosling is an amazing actor and "Drive" is elegant proof of that, if nothing else. That opening scene conveys his steely professionalism, his zero tolerance policy toward unprofessionalism, and his skills behind the wheel masterfully. With the bright, pink credits, the night-time atmosphere and the emphasis on professionals doing things outside the law it's like a silent version of a Michael Mann movie. Gosling gives practically a silent movie performance. He says it best when he says nothing at all (as a certain song once said).

I was initially disappointed that the film wasn't just a Michael Mann movie, actually. I love the opening sequence. I loved Gosling. I loved Albert Brooks as the villain. But there was something that kept me from loving the rest of the film. I think it was because it wasn't a standard heist movie, a standard crime movie. It's a romance, really, between a Michael Mann sort of character and a single mother. This romance plays out mostly in silence too, with longing looks and furtive smiles and two characters whose body language with one another grows steadily more relaxed and intimate the more time they spend together. But, alas, the romance is doomed because Irene (Carey Mulligan, who also conveys multitudes largely without speaking) has a husband in prison who is about to be paroled (Oscar Isaacs). The husband is paroled, but he has debts no honest man can pay (Springsteen's description sums it up as well as any) and must do a dangerous job for a dangerous man. If he doesn't, this man will send thugs after his wife and son. The Driver helps him, not so much to help him but because he cares for Irene and her son (one gets the sense that the Driver has become just as fond of Irene's little boy as he has of Irene). Things go wrong and the Driver has to get to the bottom of who's is behind the death of Irene's husband and ensure that these people do not hurt those he cares about.

"Drive" is also a Western, despite its modern setting and incredible synthwave soundtrack (the soundtrack might even be reason enough to see the film). It's about a violent man trying to put his violent past behind him but who finds violence overtaking him despite his best efforts. Like most films about reluctant gunslingers, the Driver unleashes his most violent impulses as a way of dealing with people who will accept nothing but violence as an answer. The violence bursts out of him only when no other course of action has worked and only when Irene is directly threatened (his goriest and most vicious act occurs when a man pulls a gun on Irene herself in an elevator).

The thing that discombobulated me the first time I watched "Drive" was its rhythms, its strange flow. I am accustomed to movies like this hitting certain beats at certain times. Refn throws the viewer off guard by eschewing these beats and mixing up the flow at key points. Also, the villains of the piece are more complex and multi-faceted than they are in other films of this type. Albert Brooks is a vicious man, but only when he has to be. He's actually gregarious and likable right up to the moment when he isn't, and that also catches the viewer off guard. Everything about "Drive" takes the usual heist/crime/reluctant gunslinger story and presents it just one step off the main beat, just slightly to the left. That makes "Drive" quietly compelling and fascinating. The characters are more deeply developed, and more subtly developed. The action sequences are a lot more brutal and elegant than usual. I think I originally wanted this movie to be cooler somehow, though it's really hard to imagine a movie being any cooler than this one. The Driver is one of the most interesting protagonists of any crime thriller I have seen, but he's also one of the coolest. For one thing, he seems like a legitimately good dude (a "real human being and a real hero", if you will) who just has violent instincts. He's a man wrestling with his own essence and his own worst impulses and he's so sweet for the first half of the film that it's rather tragic to see him beat people with a hammer and so forth. Those moments of violence against these despicable men are thrilling, to be sure, they pack a kinetic charge that is undeniable, but they're also sad because they represent Gosling losing the struggle against his own demons. The violence in this movie packs a brutal impact. Some images here are impossible to shake.

On the Junkfood Cinema podcast, I recently heard C. Robert Cargill and Brian Salisbury talk about how this movie is about Toxic Masculinity. They made the point that Oscar Isaacs and Ron Perlman's characters think they are Alpha males and swagger about as though they are the dominant figures, but how the real Alphas are Gosling and Albert Brooks, they're the men who quietly do their best to solve problems, the guys who the fake Alphas look to when things get out of hand. This adds another fascinating layer to the film that elevates it even further above the standard crime thriller or heist film. It's about what it takes to be a real man, what distinguishes a good man from a loud man. It's about the inevitability of violence. It's a meditation as much as a thriller, so it makes sense that it has a Zen figure such as Gosling's Driver at the center.

"Drive" is a philosophical treatise, a heist film, a masterful exercise in Cool, a lean action film, a powerful and achingly felt romance (Gosling and Mulligan have incredible chemistry together), a great riff on Western archetypes and tropes and an extraordinary drama. It is gorgeous to look upon, gorgeous to listen to, beautifully and powerfully acted, and iconic. I've seen probably a dozen films that have tried and failed to emulate it over the past decade, because none of them quite understood what "Drive" does so effortlessly.

There's nothing standard about "Drive". It is deluxe all the way. This is perhaps why it's more compelling on the third viewing (I think this was the third time I had watched it) than on the first. At least it was for me.

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