Where do we draw the lines between films that aestheticize violence for its own sake and those that aestheticize violence in the purpose of a higher calling? No one would deny the aesthetic nature of the violence in Luc Besson films such as The Professional or La Femme Nikita but you could also make the argument that those films subverted the violence whenever possible alongside their emphasis on character development. But, then there are films like Django Unchained which on one hand use violence for clearly stated thematic goals (any thing doing with slavery) but also for cartoonish revenge fantasy. 2011’s Drive from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn seems, on an honest assessment, to be pretty much all style and aesthetics with little to no substance. But, when the style is this good, I sort of don’t want to complain.
The lack of an actual substantive theme or rich character development in this film is absolutely baffling because Drive is very much a European art-house film at its core. It’s just an arthouse film that doesn’t mean anything beyond its plot. This was the first of Refn’s films that I’ve seen but if his technical talents to visually evoke a mood and sense of time and place (in this film’s case, the 1980s even though it takes place in modern times I assumed) are like this in the rest of his works, Refn is a visualist of the highest order. I mean, he’s not a Mallick or a Fellini, but he can join the ranks of the Gaspar Noé‘s of the world. This movie is very popular among young film types (who tend to prefer style over substance), but I found it almost shocking because it isn’t until nearly halfway through the film that the ultra-violent (and boy is it ultra-violent) action of the film began to take over.
Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl) plays the unnamed Driver, a Hollywood stuntman who also makes a living as a getaway driver in his part time. The Driver is a man of few words and almost immaculate professionalism, and the film opens with him leading the LAPD on a cat-and-mouse chase through the city and then losing them at the Staples centers after a Lakers game. In addition to being a stuntman and a getaway driver, the Driver also works as a mechanic in a classic/retro car garage with his only friend in LA, a crippled wanna be gangster named Shannon (Argo‘s Bryan Cranston). When the Driver moves into a new apartment, he begins making googly-eyes at one of the building’s tenants, kind single-mother Irene (Doctor Who‘s Carey Mulligan), but when her ex-con husband is released from prison, the Driver’s carefully maintained world is thrown into chaos.
I want to say as little about the plot developments of later on in the film as possible to stop from spoiling a relatively new indie film for those who haven’t had the chance to watch it yet. Needless to say though, twists abound (albeit predictable ones) and the body count stacks higher than an early Tarantino picture. Drive was very much a Ryan Gosling vehicle (pun half intended), and though Gosling’s performance in this doesn’t match his lovably eccentric (and simultaneously heartbreaking) turn in Lars and the Real Girl, it continues his transformation, along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, into one of Hollywood’s thinking man action stars and leading men (and for women, his transformation into the thinking woman’s [or any woman with a pulse] sex symbol). Gosling speaks very little in the film and he has to do much of his acting just with his facial expressions which he thankfully succeeds in.
However, the best aspects of the film (aside from Refn’s remarkable skills as a director) are the performances of Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston. Bryan Cranston has proven himself week in and week out to be the greatest lead performer in the history of television on Breaking Bad so its no surprise that he is more or less perfect as the half-crippled and scheming Shannon, but Albert Brooks’s terrifying performance as ruthless but affably evil gangster Bernie is the real treat of the film. I mostly know (more accurately, entirely know) Albert Brooks as a comedic actor. Comedy is the bread and butter of his career, but his take on Bernie is just exceptional. There isn’t a second he’s on screen (but his power is even more pronounced once he drops the nice guy schtick) where he isn’t controlling the whole scene. He should have gotten a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 2011.
I just wish that the movie had more to say or that the characters were at least more clearly drawn. There isn’t much in the way of a character arc for the Driver. Yes, he goes from a lonely man to someone who loves another man’s husband, but he himself seems to be more or less the exact same man from the beginning to the end of the film. The extreme acts of violence we see him commit later in the film (i.e. smashing a man’s hands to bit with a hammer and then threatening to drive a bullet with a hammer through said man’s skull) are things he was capable of earlier in the film. He just hadn’t been given an excuse to engage in them yet. And though the film has its share of eccentric characters, they’re mostly defined by one or two eccentricities. They almost uniformly lack depth. Irene herself is nothing more than a cipher for inspiring the Driver to an act of altruism. And Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks has a small part in the film but she’s on screen for like all of five minutes.
You have to understand that my complaints about the undeniably shallow nature of this film need to be taken with a grain of salt. Because from an aesthetic standpoint, Drive is almost designed to appeal to all of my different weird, niche pleasure principles from its super-80s soundtrack (even though they’re modern bands like Chromatics) to its gorgeous, European style cinematography to its absolutely unflinching display of violence in order to achieve some semblance of cinematic truth. I just wish that the movie could have married all of those aesthetic qualities I love to a Luc Besson level of depth. For fans of stylistic crime thrillers, Drive is about as easy a recommendation as they come. It’s not perfect, but I’d be hard-pressed to name a more fun way to spend an hour and forty minutes.
Final Score: B+