Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Some movies exist solely in their own cinematic universe that bears little to no resemblance to the real world, and the very best of those types of films transport our humdrum reality into a heightened state of joy.  Even if that unique world is hardly joyous.  I felt that way watching Nicolas Winding Refn's wondrous, ponderous Drive, a super-stylized neo-noir that's as black as night, cold as ice, and beguilingly entertaining.  That last time I felt a similar sense of joy and terror in a movie theater was likely Black Swan, or Children of Men, two very different films, both with bleak views of humanity and icy hearts, but because of ingenious craftsmanship and a rare, but marvelous take for the unexpected, both of those films were achingly haunting and crushingly joyous experiences.  Drive is chilling, scary, offers little but a scathing view of humanity and the world, but is a purely cinematic experience, in that every shot, every frame, every deliberate edit, every elongated line reading is utterly and intentionally self conscious of itself, but thrilling in its chutzpah, high on its own adrenaline rush, and achingly beautifully in depicting low life people at their ugliest.  In short, it's the arty popcorn film for film geeks, if perhaps nothing more.

Danish-bred Refn, who directed Bronson (which was Tom Hardy's big break before Christopher Nolan capitalized on it) and the Pusher trilogy won the directors prize at this years Cannes Film Festival for Drive, and it's easy to see why, for even those who may utterly despise the film (and there will be many), the crafty and meticulous beautiful\ugly noir palette on display is a visual feast.  The surreal rhythms, fanciful lighting, heightened and evocative camera shots-- Drive is a film to be worshiped in the sense that there's really nothing quite like it, even though structurally it follows old school film noir rules.  The pace is slow, but brash, and the notes where nothing is happening are perhaps more startling than the chases and hyper violence that peppers the film.  Something else that might have appeased the Cannes voting committee was the minimalist to an extreme lead role performed by Ryan Gosling, who is lit and staged in such old school iconic fashion that it feels akin to what it might have felt like to be watching James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause for the first time.  Whatever happenstance led Gosling and Refn together, it pays off in spades, and likely will accrue dorm rooms full of the films poster and T-shirts of the Method actor's mug to be worn be hipsters for decades.

The first instinct is that Drive relishes an old Hollywood feel, Gosling plays a stuntman for the movies-- his impeccable, death-defying car tricks likely led him to extra circular side work.  In simplest terms, he's just a driver, he's so intentionally anonymous, the film fails to give his character a name.  Moonlighting at a body shop run by his crony\agent Shannon (played with effortless mugging by Bryan Cranston), the taciturn driver is given side work with shadier players.  He's been there before-- the film opens with a bravura sequence that maps out his routine, he just drives, while others do their thing.  As noir rules dictate, our driver himself has rules-- he waits five minutes, no more, no less, he never carries a gun, all he does is drive.  Again, as noir rules dictates, those rules are later broken.  Gosling the movie star has never looked so ripe, so quietly dominating-- just as in this summer's Crazy, Stupid, Love, it's hard to take your eyes off him, even here where he erases the charming sheen.  There's a cold beatific poetry to his work that's startling, dangerous and unexpected.

Our nameless driver gets entangled in real trouble when he starts a slowly-evolved kinship with his neighbor, a quiet pretty lass named Irene (Carey Mulligan), a mother of a small child with a husband named Standard (Oscar Isaac), recently released from prison.  What starts as small act of kindness leads down a rabbit hole of violence with heavy bad guys.  One is Nino, played to the hilt by Ron Perlman and other, Bernie Rose, played in delightful overload by Albert Brooks.  I don't want to get to heavy into plot specifics, because Drive is better experienced than explained, though Mad Men's Christina Hendricks pops up in a small role as a noir moll whose brief appearance provides a terse impression, and the impending violence is shocking, not just because who nonchalantly it's shot, but also because how surprising it is.  The performances are thankfully glowing across the board and play right into the heightened reality.  Perlman and Brooks are terrific and funny and ever so menacing, relishing the chance to be good and bad, while Mulligan is gracefully sweet in her interlude with Gosling; what they may lack in chemistry they make up for in mood, and their quiet nods of affection read genuine.  There's a nifty, hyper stylized first kiss on a elevator that turns into bloodshed that's haunting, surreal and lovely all at once; it's an only in the movie type of sequence, but one that's gloriously staged so much that's it hard to turn away.

Drive is pure pop filmmaking-- part music video, part video game, part old fashioned gangster tale, part ultra-modern cult wannabe, but all those seemingly incongruous pieces work to make a piece of beautiful style over substance art.  Refn's film has the blackest of hearts, but the joy of this violent thriller is in it's glittery piece, it's retro soundtrack, a beautifully crumby view of a crime-leaden Hollywood underbelly.  With it's part Raymond Chandler, part David Lynch look and feel, here's a film that feels like it could go just about anywhere, and yet on its high and intoxicating confidence carries the willing and patient moviegoer into a trance of submission.  What may come of Drive's legacy is unknown, but for now, I'm willing to say it's the most exciting, entrancing and refreshing film so far this year.  A-

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