Film Review

Drive (2011)

IMDB link
Running time: 1h 40min
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book)
Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston

Drive is a competently made, stylized, somewhat artistic, and (relatively) low-budget drama/action/thriller that was very well-received with both critics and audiences. I like it, and I think it deserves its reputation, but it is not quite as good as some claim; it has a good cast, great direction, and it is visually fantastic, but it does not quite manage to reach greatness.

The plot of Drive is somewhat basic and bare-bones, though, to its credit, not entirely predictable. The simplicity can be overlooked since the film is more about the atmosphere, the visuals, and the music. Similar stories (with the related tropes) have been told numerous times before, but Drive does it differently enough to stand out in a good way. I should also note that complexity is not always the better option, especially if there are no valid reasons for it. Some of my favorite films are relatively simplistic and easy to follow (e.g. Predator (1987), Fistful of Dollars (1964), Jaws (1975). Despite of this, I think Drive could have benefited from some small additional elements of complexity (or maybe just screentime), especially for its antagonists.

In addition to the crime/thriller/action tropes which the film uses extensively (and sometimes subverts), Drive is an LA film that touches on the film industry (the main character being a stunt double). I am sure someone who lives there (or has at least visited) can get much more out of the film than others, especially if they have worked in the film industry. While Drive moves somewhat slowly at times, there is a tension to the film that gradually builds up and eventually explodes in violence. You are never quite at ease watching the film, which, in this case, is good.

Ryan Gosling is Driver

The actors are all very good and there are no weak links: the cast features names such Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, and Ron Perlman, so there is definitely established talent involved in this relatively low budget film ($15 million). The one (albeit small) issue I have with the casting is Ryan Gosling, who is not completely believable as someone who can be so explosively violent and get away with it as easily as he does. While he is good in the role, I think someone with more edge to them would have suited it better. Then again, maybe the pretty boy looks of Gosling serve to contrast with the harshness of his reality and the way he deals with it in some beneficial way. I should perhaps also note in the film’s defence, that as he is a stunt double, the good looks do make sense.

Bryan Cranston is always good

In any case, while it is standard Hollywood to cast extremely beautiful people (for obvious reasons), it is also standard Hollywood to cast rugged and handsome men (i.e. just different flavor of beautiful) in these roles. Thus, if one truly wanted to go against the mold and break barriers, one should cast far less conventionally attractive people in starring roles. But not enough people will want to see that, so it won’t happen. Gosling being (possibly) too good-looking and unscarred is, however, a very minor, subjective issue. I will point out that his character, who is just “Driver” in the script, is similar to Eastwood’s iconic Man With no Name, because of his confidence, the limited amount of dialogue, and for his methods of dealing with adversity. Ironically, a younger Eastwood looked exactly like someone who you would cast in a role like this. But enough of this. Perhaps the book should not be judged by its cover, and obviously one should not completely correlate looks with character — in a visual, temporally limited medium appearances do play a major role, though.

Christina Hendricks (of Mad Men fame) has a minor role in which she is quite good

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s career got started with Pusher (1996), a low budget crime drama, which was also one of the first films Mads Mikkelsen ever appeared in. Refn’s films could be described as (somewhat) non-mainstream, artistic (with emphasis on visuals, the use of colors, and atmosphere), and hard-hitting, including titles such as Bronson (2008) and The Neon Demon (2016). Interestingly, he is (at least partly) color blind, which has influenced the way his films look. I think Drive is his best film, and it is quite possibly the one with the most main-stream appeal as well — thanks to Gosling’s fame, the relative simplicity of the story, and it just not being as weird or obscure as some of this other movies. The Pusher films are good, but very raw and rough around the edges, Bronson I hardly remember, and I think Valhalla Rising (2007) was not very good. I have not seen The Neon Demon yet, but I have heard mostly positive things about it. Refn is an interesting director who, being 51 at the time of writing, still has plenty of career ahead of him.

Hide and seek

The music fits the film like a glove, but (obviously) not everyone will enjoy it, and the visuals are very nice and atmospheric. This is one of those movies that benefit from being seen in the cinema (which I did not); a good screen and sound system will allow the film’s strengths to blossom.

Drive is an atmospheric film. Irene (Carey Mulligan) is not your typical love interest, which is refreshing

Style over substance is an argument that could be levied against Drive; this is a film for eyes and ears first and foremost. It’s also sporadically quite violent, and that will put some people off. Anecdotally, my grandmother actually liked Drive, so maybe its appeal is more universal than one could imagine. But, to be completely honest and fair, I have semi-forcefully increased her tolerance over the years by showing her some very ungrandma-like movies (she did quit at least Predator and Apocalypto (2006), though). Another criticism, which I did already mention briefly, is that the characters, especially the antagonists and the driver himself, do not get much meat around their bones, and in some cases remain just 1-dimensional stereotypes/tropes. It is subjective, though, and leaving some things to the viewer’s imagination is not a bad decision; overexplanation and complexity can be detrimental.

There is not much action in the film, but what’s there is well-executed and quite brutal. I think it all works very well, especially considering the budget that the film had to work with. However, as already mentioned, the ease with which Gosling navigates through his encounters with violent career criminals does maybe stretch the limits of one’s suspension of disbelief.

Visual storytelling (such as how Driver protects Irene here) adds to the experience

Some consider Drive a masterpiece, and others regard it as just OK. I am somewhere in the middle of those two opinions. It is a noteworthy film at the very least, and probably something one should see if they are looking for something slightly less main-stream in the drama/action/thriller category. It is, to a large part, style over substance, and that plays a big part in how one will receive it. It is also a movie that, at least for me, requires a specific mood (in addition to a good technical setting) to truly shine.

Rating: 7.5 / 10

Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 2

Would I want to rewatch this film? I quite likely will at some point in the next 20 years or so

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