Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Produced by: Michel Litvak
Screenplay by: Hossein Amini
Based on: Drive by James Sallis
Starring: Ryan Gosling
Music by: Cliff Martinez
Cinematography by: Newton Thomas Sigel
Editing by: Matthew Newman
Studio(s): Bold Films
Odd Lot Entertainment
Marc Platt Productions
Distributed by: FilmDistrict
Release date(s): May 20, 2011 (Cannes)
September 16, 2011 (United States)
Running time: 100 minutes
Country: United States
Budget: $15 million
Box office revenue: $72, 355, 453
Alright folks, this is my final full-length review for the year of 2011. It has been some journey, and I am already hard at work on my best and worst of 2011. Believe it or not, you'd be surprised at how hard it is for a film fan/critic to be able to narrow down shortlists of over twenty down to five nominees. As such, I have made some 'liberal' alterations to some of my categories, although I think they are fair, and if a movie truly deserves nominations, some leniency should be allowed, instead of having the usual 'five-nominee' rule. Also, before I post this best and worst, which I believe to be my most meticulous yet, I will post a collection of 'capsule' reviews, which will include Senna, Troll Hunter, The Descendants, Beginners, Conan and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so keep your eyes posted!
The last film to receive a full review from 2011 is Drive, the new film by Nicolas Winding Refn. Having received significant critical acclaim, with Richard Roeper and Chris Stuckmann having declared it the best film of 2011, along with bagging director Refn the 'Prix de la mise en scene' Best Director award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, it seems safe to say that regardless of its Oscar-snubbing, it will be for many people one of the year's most fondly remembered films. As for myself, you'll have to wait and find out, but before we get to that, I'll give you a sense of the history between Refn and I. In 2009, I awarded Tom Hardy my Best Actor Award for his mercurial performance as the eponymous Bronson, made by a young director called Nicolas Winding Refn, who I thought occasionally seemed to be "having problems controlling the beast that is his movie." A year later, I reviewed his follow-up, Valhalla Rising, which won my award for 2010's Best Action/Adventure Film, and found myself being fascinated by his directorial style, and his display of "a range of palettes which is not really common among young directors." With these films in context, Drive fell into my lap at the butt-end of the reviewing season, having heard so much about it and having a personal history of sorts with Winding Refn's works. In this film, Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver for those who required his services. Shannon (Bryan Cranston) owns the garage from which Driver sets up his other jobs, and borrows money from mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) to purchase a stock car. Rose' business partner Nino (Ron Perlman) has a less than friendly history with Shannon. From here, after giving her a lift home, he strikes up a friendship with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), and through various entanglements with her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac), recently released from prison, Driver has to protect Irene and her son from various mobsters.
To start off with the good about Drive, I must highlight the acting, which is more or less in every department top-notch. Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks are good in their bit-part capacities, while Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks provide some weight to their supporting roles. Also, Carey Mulligan takes a character who, granted, is written as two-dimensional, and turns Irene into a fully-round human being. Mulligan gives the character a very real sense of vulnerability and innocence, and certainly in symbolic terms, represents an important part to the story. However, Drive in acting terms belongs to Ryan Gosling. Gosling's superbly understated performance deserves fair comparison to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, though Eastwood's characters were always angels of justice/punishment, whereas Gosling gives Driver a more humanist sense of justice. Furthermore, Gosling subtly depicts an isolated man-child, a lost soul in search of meaning, but not without showing his character's dark side, and as Driver goes to extreme measures to protect what he loves, you his silent menace enables you to be able to believe him legitimately capable of such things. Gosling does so much by doing so little in Drive, every movement in his physical performance speaking more for Driver than words ever could. however, the actors would not have been able to give such fine performances if it were not for Hossein Amini's script. The beauty to Amini's script/story is simplicity; really, when you think about Drive after seeing it, you could sum up the film's entire plot in about five lines. The distinct lack of dialogue, particularly in the case of the protagonist, enables the audience to engage with the characters not on an intellectual level but on an emotional level. The script truly caters to the actors, and Driver's character arc is one of the most well-structured and true pieces of storytelling I have seen in quite some time. For all of Drive's great elements, many of which I will cover in this section, this is, first and foremost, a film by Nicolas Winding Refn. One of the more interesting directors to emerge on the international film scene, Drive contains many of his stylistic trademarks. For instance, he has a quite brilliant sense of where music will fit appropriately into his films. Cliff Martinez' instrumental electronic soundscapes give the film a consistent pace, a pulse, a heartbeat that just doesn't stop until the end of the film's credits sequence. Also, they serve as a bridge between Refn's specifically selected songs, by artists such as Kavinsky, Desire and College. These songs, although not original sources, are used in such an iconic way that it is hard to separate them from the story of Drive. They fit beautifully as a piece of the jigsaw that composes not just this film, but all film. Furthermore, the film is also a great showcase for Refn's unique sense of visual style. Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography is sublime, depicting a story in a visually interesting manner. It almost becomes a part of the mise-en-scene, as the way in which it is implemented is subtle, the focus being on the characters, and the contrast in lighting, which visually suggests their internally conflicting egos. This emphasis on contrast is also important with regards to Matthew Newman's editing. Refn has Newman create a seamless juxtaposition between the polar opposites, the beautiful scenes of humanity and the ugly scenes of monstrous violence. Newman wisely never overdoes it either of these scenes, cutting so as to let the audience add the colour to the black-and-white painting. Also, the film's design and costumes have a wide and varied palette which once again focuses on these contrasts. The production design is reminiscent of the sort of hallucinatory, familiar yet alien atmospheres David Lynch would create with his films, while the costumes, particularly Driver's jacket, which depicts him as a sort of knight in shining armour (or rather, shining leather), all point to the nature of the characters onscreen. All of these elements are down to the director of Nicholas Winding Refn, who should be thoroughly applauded for breathing life into this picture and creating something that is genuinely unique, even as a recognisable entry into his filmography.
Now, I loved Drive, and think that it is one of the few genuinely excellent films of 2011, but I must say that there is one problem, that problem being the characterisation. In the case of Driver, we get a fully-fleshed character, while Mulligan's Irene, though two-dimensional, serves a symbolic purpose to the film's narrative that is key to legitimising this story. However, though the actors perform well, I feel that Christina Hendricks' Blanche, Oscar Isaac's Standard and Brian Cranston's Shannon are not as well fleshed out as they could be. Granted, part of the issue at hand is the fact that Amini's screenplay is for the most part perfect, so anything not up to that standard (pardon the unintentional pun) stands out negatively. These three actors are unfortunately saddled with characters that cannot even transcend their two-dimensionality the way Mulligan's Irene does, and as a result lack symbolic importance, and feel like cogs lost in the machine. That said, this problem, which would be quite an issue in any other film, is overcome in Drive by it's intrinsic qualities.
Aside from my quibbles on the characterisation side of things, Drive is an excellent film. The acting is uniformly terrific, particularly from Gosling and Mulligan. Also, Hossein Amini's script, even with it's problem, is still a mighty fine piece of work and a great exercise in simplicity and the mantra of 'less is more.' Finally, with it's visual style, soundtrack/score and mise-en-scene, this is the true realisation of Nicolas Winding Refn's talents. Drive represents the flowering of his creative abilities, and with that, we witness the discovery of a man who is sure to be one of cinema's few genuine auteurs in the years to come. For the first time, he has made a transcendental picture. In closing, Drive, with it's juxtaposition of extreme opposites, grotesque violence and poetic beauty, is an instant classic.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.2/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Good (the ball is rolling on my best and worst of 2011!)