I saw a film that I liked so much I'm writing about it. How about that.
In the hands of a Brett Ratner or a Louis Letterier, and headlined by a go-to low-budget action star, Drive would be just another in the endless pile of merely competent, brainless action thrillers populating many a casual moviewatchers' DVD shelves. Fortunately this is one of those occasions where straight-up B movie fodder is transformed by a bunch of talented individuals into something rather more special, thoughtful, and very possibly timeless. Like getting Scorsese to direct Cape Fear or The Departed... still very much a genre piece, but gaining that particular edge that lifts it higher than any reasonable expectation.
Ryan Gosling plays the never-named 'Driver'. A classic existentialist movie character, a man of few words (at an outside guess I'd say he has less than 50 lines in the film), and ice cool self-confidence - the kind borne out of being extremely capable in his particular line of work, and very sure of his world. Working as a mechanic and stunt driver for the movies, and moonlighting as a getaway driver for hire, he's living the spartan, focused lifestyle of the single-minded professional. He's Léon, or Le Samourai's Jef Costello. That is, until he meets and becomes friendly with a new neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. Parallel to this is a local crime boss (Albert Brooks), who is fronting the money to start a legitimate racing team with Driver's garage boss and confidant (Bryan Cranston). The plot won't be spoiled in any way here, but needless to say things don't quite continue on this pleasant track.
I think I actually prefer the first half of the film. There's a real tenderness and honesty to the growing friendship / possible relationship that builds not only between Mulligan and Gosling, but also Gosling and the boy. Clearly Driver has come from a murky past, but he's transformed by the pair. Although stoic and often silent, he's perfectly capable of being warm and charming in a genuine way. He even seems to acknowledge to himself that becoming close to these people is a kind of inevitability, something that's beyond control in his finely-structured existence. I found the lengthy set-up of these characters captivating, which of course earns the film every ounce of investment it needs for its subsequent trajectory.
There's a particular defining moment, a simple dialogue exchange that
that makes you realise there's something much darker bubbling under this cool
surface. It comes out of nowhere and it stood my hair on end. When Driver ultimately has to resort to violence he does so with absolute fearlessness and brutality, but the work done in the first half of the film keeps us with him.
Although it has a standard noirish B-movie plotline, it's the little choices it makes in individual scenes that I love. The overarching story is full of well-worn tropes, but in the moment to moment stuff it confounds expectations every time. A lifetime of film watching has loaded me with a smug self-confidence in second-guessing, but Drive really does its own thing. I don't mean the details of the story... I mean the things it decides to show, or how to show them. How you'd expect a clichéd character to behave, versus how they actually do in this film. How you'd expect an action scene to go down, or a car chase. I found it really refreshing.
Drive feels like a movie that Michael Mann or William Friedkin would have made in the 80s (and really the only thing that betrays its contemporary setting is its car models and the use of mobile phones). It's incredibly stylish, but also meaty. LA is shot with searing brightness during the day and given a warm glow at night, favourably comparable to To Live and Die In LA, Heat, or Collateral. Great 'city' movies. The full widescreen frame is never wasted and there are some truly beautiful compositions and visual moments. But the visual slickness is easily matched by a clutch of excellent performances and an emotional core. It also has a killer synth soundtrack (another thing that could place it bang in the 80s).
Sometimes you're watching a new movie and you know it's going to be one of those that's going to cement a spot in that often-maligned category of cult classic. One of those relatively low-key movies that just endures - the kind that people light up about when you remind them it exists ten, twenty years down the line.
It's cool, to put it simply. It's a really goddamned cool movie.