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Review: The Self Possession of "Drive"

There's 100,000 streets. You don't need to know the route."

The Driver is alone in a hotel room. Looking out over the city at night, negotiating on a cel phone he'll abandon immediately. We never learn his name. We don't need to know it.

His face is Ryan Gosling's, but even so it's a less familiar landscape than you'd think. With Drive, the actor erases any doubts (were there any?) that he's the most exciting young movie star on this side of the Atlantic. For the driver, his face has taken on a new mask-like stillness which twice in Nicolas Winding Refn's brilliant new movie, is covered (redundantly) by an actual mask. There is no knowing this driver; if we were given his name we'd forget it anyway or doubt its authenticity. Even the underscore, a brilliantly retro synth score, that memorably features Kavinksy's "Nightcall" just as we're being introduced keeps us at a certain remove, a hypnotized female voice singing "There's something inside you. It's hard to explain." Indeed.

To summarize the plot of Drive would immediately reduce it to a standard nihilistic noir or crime drama. If you must know -- though I hope you've already seen it because it's best seen cold without knowing the following details -- the driver is a stunt driver for the movies and also a mechanic and also quite willing to be your getaway for crimes. He won't ask questions and you shouldn't either. He just drives. His mechanic boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston, excellent) and his quiet neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan, excellent) and her child Benico (Kaden Leos, also excellent... you'll be sensing a trend here) are the three people in his life that he seems to care for, despite his dangerously self-possessed aura. In the course of Drive, this walking loner archetype is gradually humanized whether through narrative emotional connections or performance choices. Both the neighbor and the boss have troubled histories including people who are Trouble and the driver's very tight social circle is soon forcibly opened by crowbars, shotguns and handshakes. The cast expands to include a wealthy investor/criminal Bernie (Albert Brooks... seeking Oscar), his mouthy colleague Nino (Ron Perlman, delighted to show off) a lesser criminal Cook (James Biberi) and his associate Blanche (Christina Hendricks, memorably put-out in stilettos), and Irene's ex-con husband with the perfect name of "Standard" (Oscar Isaac, just terrific). Needless to say, shit goes down both in and out of cars. Very violent, exquisitely directed shit goes down. 

To Refn and Gosling's credit, the unknowable driver doesn't stay a mere Embodiment of Something (like, say, Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men) which helps the movie immeasurably. The few times the driver's humanity peaks through, his voice trembling, a flash of fear across his face, or even a moment of tenderness are genuinely unnerving; the untouchable man is touched. Even the stoic loner, who loves only driving and barely speaks, can't escape the violent messy pull of humanity. His choice to dehumanize again, donning the mask a second time, is a genuinely frightening image that I haven't been able to shake since seeing the movie. 

Drive is one of those movies. It makes you think in and of its images. I generally take notes when I watch films though I can't always understand them afterwards, the danger of scribbling in the dark. My notes for Drive... are strange. The standard illegible chicken scratches appear but there are also crude images scribbled in, attempts to capture the movies indelibe compositions, use of color and general mise-en-scene. (I've recreated two of them here for you since my scanner is broken).

I'm not sure why i wrote red all over this one. Stills show that it's more orange.

Drive is just one of those movies, the kind that unfold with such individuality and confidence and sense of possibility that you can almost imagine the celluloid standing up and strutting right past you, knowing full well you're going to turn and look. Yeah, I'm hot shit, it might say, if it weren't so emphatically the strong and silent type. One could argue, as I did with myself on second viewing, that the movie does boast about its own coolness in just this way and too often. If there's something to be said against Drive beyond its nasty nihilism (the extent of the violence is... uneccessary) it's just that. The movie stops in its track a few times and whether or not you're hypnotized (I was absolutely) it's clearly showing off. Let's just say that Nicolas Winding Refn is the most exciting Mad Dane to arrive in the movies since Lars von Trier... and knows it, too.

Though Drive's initial retro impression with the synth score, glistening cityscapes and practically neon hot pink titles immediately is that it's paying homage to the 1980s and Michael Mann, Drive very quickly becomes only its own memorable self. But because it's so emphatically a movie, so possessed by the motion in its pictures  --even its frozen tableaus are alive with suggested movement, promised ugly futures you fear you'll lunge towards without warning -- it can't help but recall the great tradition of cinema's coolest movies.  Leaving the movie the first time (I've already seen it twice) I thought most of Pulp Fiction. Not Pulp Fiction as we know it now -- annoyingly replicated never duplicated -- but Pulp Fiction back when it first took the world by storm; they aren't much alike but for that blast of intoxicating fresh air in the theater. A/A-

Recommended Further Reading
The Film Experience - "People Will Love It Ten Years From Now"
Nick's Flick Picks - a coiled python
Serious Film -"atmosphere. neon glow and moments that hang in the air..."
My New Plaid Pants "Chrissy Hendricks, Stiletto Wobbler
In Contention "the finest layer of B-movie grime that time and money can buy

Have you seen Drive? If so do sound off in the comments. 

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Reader Comments (24)

I saw this last night...love love love the suspense, the music, the sound (Oscar please), the retro 80s vibe, and, of course, Gosling (and the scorpion jacket). The plot is standard - its the execution and style that are the stars here.

Oh Nathaniel (and other Oscar bloggers and journalists)...please please please do not stump for an Oscar nom for Albert Brooks...yes he is an accomplished artist...he's quite good playing against type....he does villainous very well...but he does not do anything spectacular here...this is not an Oscar role. Let's stump for someone who is more deserving of this honor.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSoSueMe

I did have too a vibe of Pulp Fiction . Interesting film, but I couldn't really enjoy it after the violence started. Too much, for no reason.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradelutza

Also, i was Carey Mulligan's character, after the elevator scene I would have run away ASAP. The guy was obviously deranged or , at least, at the same level of the bad guys.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradelutza

SPOILERS -- adelutza -- but didn't she kind of? i mean it's not like the relationship went anywhere?

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I'm jealous you've already seen it twice. I'm also jealous of the fact you'll receive the Academy screener DVD to have Drive all to yourself. By the way I never pay too much attention that you're the actually artist behind much of the featured art work at this site -- you're so talented. Have you ever given one of your works of art to a famous person?

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfull

Isn't this the first film you've given an A to automatically since Rachel Getting Married?

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

/3rtfull -- my art usually shows up in only box office posts and the occassional one off or festival thing but i feature a lot of other people's in the links column (though always clearly labelled as such as does Alexa in the Curio column. But more of my artwork is coming as i have a project in the works.

i have never given a piece of mine to a famous person but Lee Daniels did ask for my Precious painting. but that was a digital send and he never responded so does that count as gifting? ;)

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Beau -- no Poetry and Certified Copy too (i've shifted away from normal grades to double grades since i'm a gemini and always arguing with myself) were A/A- this year.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

My screening of it this Friday in NYC was randomly interrupted by 10min of the film just stopping. Guess where it stopped? When Driver was waiting for Standard and Blanche to come back. That's one hell of a place to stop the film for an Intermission of sorts!

I definitely enjoyed it, but it was so far removed from what I had expected that I do think I'm going to need to see it again to fully appreciate what the film was doing.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Drive is a great theme party: come in your best acid wash jeans or quilted Members Only jacket to a swanky apartment in LA where the movie plays on loop (muted) and the fantastic soundtrack is blasting. But cinematically? I don't know, the overwhelming reliance on "style" never transcended the inert story or dull characterizations. I loved looking at it, but I was not moved.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

Ryan T -- that is crazy. funny that story reminds me of another Tarantino movie and i already brought up pulp fiction. the first time i saw kill bill. they stopped the movie after 15 minutes and restarted the whole movie (because they had accidentally started it early and people were filing in and super angry they had missed the beginning. so i saw the opening reel twice ;)

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

It's a great looking film and the performances are pretty strong but something about it felt a little empty at times. Nowhere near the level of emptiness of something like Transformers 3 but something about it just didn't complete hit me. Still, it's a pretty strong film and among the top five films of the year, so I can't really complain.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

Saw it last night. So, so impressed with its unique vision, its individuality, and yes, holy shit, every moment of the cast.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

count me into the "shrug" column.....high on style but .......BUT........that's a big BUT.......

Okay, Gosling was cool. I don't yet consider him more than cool though. A young and good looking actor with tail loads of charisma. He's making all the right choices right now, though. Keep 'em guessing I guess.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersheila kind

I love your reviews. Even though I sometimes forget they're there, they're the best part of the site.

I'm wasn't sure what to make of its boastfulness about its coolness, as you say, but I eventually bought it. It's in character for this movie to be self-conscious and over-confident, is the best way I can put it.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

Daniels seeing your art is more than enough.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfull

"Drive" is a perfect film.


September 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

We just saw Drive ... it is the best pic of any year ... the directing was spectacular, as was the cinematography ... and Ryan Gosling ( we have followed his career from his beginnings and I am so happy he is finally getting his due ) he was brilliant... reminded me of Heath Ledger's performance in Bareback Mountain ..... the restraint, yet you knew everything they were thinking ... I see you have him on the new Oscar predix as Leading Actor for Ides of March ... I don't see how he could top Drive!!! Anyway whatever, he gets nommed for, he deserves it.

I have read no reviews of the movie and I have read none of the blogs comments, so I hope I am not going over everyone else's reviews or comments... I will read them tonight.

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrick

^First, "Bareback Mountain." Lol.

Second, I agree that Drive was a bit style over substance. The screenplay could have used some work ("the I'm leaving and won't be coming back" line was so cliched) and I thought Ryan Gosling was a little too stone-faced (I never got the impression that I knew what he was thinking, as Rick did above), but the style was so refreshing that I'm left feeling mostly positive about the movie. I almost want stills of some of those shots, and I'm buying the soundtrack as I write.

I love your first two drawings above, Nathaniel!

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEvan


Sorry I am so stupid ( LOL ) .. but I still feel the two performances were related in the area of both roles were limited in dialogue, but the acting outcome was terrific. Heath Ledger could have easily done the Drive role and vice versa.

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Loved it.

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex BBats

Style over subzzzz

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

saw a screening a while ago and am very glad I did have a chance to see it as it won't open here for another couple of months. I loved it. It is more of a cinematic experience for me more than anything. A lot of style and exceptionally memorable. The performances were really good, from Gosling, Brooks, down to Oscar Issac. I think Gosling has an outside shot at a nomination for this, but who cares if he doesn't if he keeps making movies like this and Half Nelson (which he won an actor prize here in Sweden a few year back in the film fest).

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenternico


I just reread my blog and yours and realized what the LOL was... I constantly made that mistake when the movie came out.. I guess, somethings never go away!!!

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrick
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