I don’t know whether “Drive” feels like such a radical movie because of its own merit or because Michael Bay and the “Transformers” culture have made violence and art antonyms in the cultural thesaurus. Regardless, anyone who realizes that the two can coexist will rejoice in seeing someone approach the genre like a painter with a palette, not a 12-year-old with plenty of testosterone to exude. Through his stylization and aestheticization of action, director Nicolas Winding Refn gives us hope that the “impending Dark Age,” as Roger Ebert coined it, is not inevitable at a cinema near you as long as people are still willing to take bold risks like combining the art film with the heist film.
Much like his viscerally charged “Bronson,” a career-launching vehicle for Tom Hardy, “Drive” is a dazzling visual experience that struts across the screen with swagger and confidence. Refn’s film comes with that increasingly rare sense that every moment and every frame have been carefully and purposefully constructed, and as a result, his film will be watched again and again. Maybe in a few years, this movie will be a textbook for how to actually direct – and not just supervise – an action movie. (I can dream, can’t I?) The times call for a new “New Hollywood” movement, and directors like Refn and Steve McQueen are entering mainstream consciousness at the perfect time to lead it.
“Drive” hides many subtleties in its style, developing its characters through the celluloid as much as on the page. The mysterious Driver, played by Ryan Gosling, is revealed mostly through Refn’s lens. The Driver talks little and emotes even less; he mechanically goes about his days as a stunt driver and his nights as a getaway driver. In fact, we probably learn the most about the character in Refn’s extended takes of his blank expressions while driving. It’s miraculous to see how much a talented actor like Gosling can communicate through just slight movement of his facial muscles. Each shot provides such clear insights into his obfuscated mind that it’s impossible not to be wowed by Gosling’s prowess.
However, remember what your mother told you growing up – looks aren’t everything. Indeed, perhaps the intense stylization is compensation for the film’s lack of plot and character development outside of the central character. Yes, I know that Refn would have used these techniques with or without a fantastic script, but the movie still suffers without one. “Drive” engages our brains via the eyes, which is great, yet there’s still something left to be desired. There’s a reason to watch but not one to care.
It’s really a shame because for Refn, this could have been a burst onto the scene at Tarantino and “Pulp Fiction” levels. He assembled a fantastic cast to help him execute the movie, including Emmy winner Bryan Cranston and Oscar nominees Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks. Yet any number of laurels can’t put life into flat, one-dimensional stock characters. The story itself really doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from your average, run-of-the-mill Hollywood action flick. Guy meets girl, guy goes to extreme lengths to protect her? It sounds slightly familiar, doesn’t it?
So by all accounts, “Drive” is a must-see movie. Emphasis on seeing. (And OK, listening too if only for the awesome synth-punk score.) You’ll be happy to watch the indie-film style guidebook applied to something that isn’t a star-crossed romance. But you’ll have to wait to see it applied to a well-plotted action movie. B /