Review: DRIVE (L.A. Film Festival 2011)

Though Drive's premise - a Hollywood stuntman moonlights as a getaway driver - seems similar to action-heavy fare like The Transporter, this film takes a B-movie plot and turns it into A-list quality, resulting in a movie unlike anything I've ever seen. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn infuses Drive with smoldering suspense and punctuates it with moments of intense violence, delivering a Los Angeles crime noir that revs up the tension with each passing minute.

Though Drive is Refn's Hollywood debut, the director is already well respected in film nerd circles for the Pusher trilogy and Bronson, the film in which Inception and The Dark Knight Rises star Tom Hardy delivered his breakout performance. Drive is his first stateside production, and Refn is acutely aware of the badassery that has come before him in Hollywood. This movie is unquestionably post-modern, referencing other films constantly; from its hot neon pink cursive opening credits reminiscent of Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. to early moments of the downtown skyline that resemble Michael Mann's superlative L.A. movie Collateral, the city of Los Angeles is as much a character to Refn as the people inhabiting his film. The references don't stop with the city, though: Ryan Gosling's character is a hodgepodge of cinematic badassery through the years. Never addressed by name in the film, Gosling is credited as "Driver," similar to Charles Bronson's character of "Harmonica" in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West or Eastwood's Man With No Name from that director's "Dollars trilogy." Driver chews on a toothpick the same way Chow-Yun Fat grinds on a match in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, and he wears a jacket with a scorpion embroidered on it much like Robert Rodriguez's mariachi character throughout his own "Mexico trilogy" of films.

Refn chooses his music carefully, and this movie could easily be his Pulp Fiction in terms of soundtracks. Drive has one of the most interesting soundtracks I've heard in a long time because the music mirrors the ambiance of the film. Blending sounds from the 80's and today, the retro vibe of many of the tracks call attention to the way Drive is influenced by its predecessors but, at the same time, adds a modern edge. (Check out Kavinsky's eerie "Nightcall" or College's fantastic "A Real Hero" for examples.)

The performances are magnetic, with Gosling and rising star Carey Mulligan leading a charge of talented character actors including "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston, "Mad Men" actress Christina Hendricks, the ever-menacing and versatile Ron Perlman, and a surprising turn from comedy legend Albert Brooks in a deadly serious role. Refn and writer Hossein Amini populate the movie with quiet moments, allowing the actors to carry the film instead of relying on excessive action. But when those action scenes kick in, they're brutal as hell; the shocking violence (and incredibly loud sound design) shatters audience expectations as much as fragments of bone on screen. And while some may complain "not much happens" in the first half of the film aside from relationship building and creating tone, it takes a turn halfway through that eventually brings it to a pretty vicious conclusion.

The excellent opening scene is unlike any car chase I've ever seen. Refn resists the urge to pull his camera back, opting instead to shoot the entire sequence from within Driver's vehicle, giving us a realistic perspective of a getaway. By breaking expectations early, Refn lets us know what we're in for as an audience: a slow burn noir heavy on character and atmosphere. Fantastic direction, a great soundtrack, intense action, and solid acting make Drive one of the best films of the year. Though I won't assume it'll work for everyone, it worked wonderfully for me and I can't wait to see what Refn does next in Hollywood. Until next time...