September 12, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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DRIVE is a self-conscious genre movie, and those are tricky propositions.  On the one hand, you need to make your existential or other textual statement with all the artistry at your command; on the other, you still have to fulfill the demands of the genre you’ve chosen.  If you do it right, you have Heat; make a mistake and you’ve got The Driver.  Nicolas Winding Refn has for the most part made smart decisions, and the result is an exciting, moody thriller graced with an exceptional cast and some high-caliber moviemaking.

Taking a cue from The Driver, the protagonist of Drive has no given name, and is credited merely as “Driver.”  (Walter Hill’s picture pushed the pretention farther, with hardly any of the characters having names.)  Ryan Gosling, continuing to find a sweet spot between commercial vehicles (so to speak) and art-house cinema, plays a man with overlapping jobs:  he’s a movie stunt-driver, an auto mechanic and a getaway driver for heists.  (In all 3 professions, he works with Shannon, played by Bryan Cranston.)  As a getaway man, he insists on strict rules:  he has nothing to do with the robbery itself, but provides the crooks with a window of exactly 5 minutes.  If they’re in his car with the loot within that window, he guarantees they’ll get where they want to go; any earlier or later, and he’s gone. 
Our hero is reticent (of course), but immensely loyal, and he lets Shannon talk him into a plan to work together on a NASCAR auto, for which he’ll be the driver.  This requires capital, however, which brings them into the orbit of gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his partner Nino (Ron Perlman).  As one may easily imagine, no good can come of this.  Meanwhile, he’s also met his neighbor down the hall, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos).  The three become close, but then Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, which starts the plot rolling and the characters dying.  Inevitably, things boil down to the Driver facing off against those who threaten the people he cares about. 
Refn directed the Danish Pusher trilogy, as well as the prison drama Bronson, so he’s not a newcomer to the melding of thrills with character and theme.  Working from a spare script by Hossein Amini (from the novel by James Sallis), Refn works the genre conventions–the heist gone bad, the chases, the double-crosses that become triple, the killings that have to happen because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do–with style and speed, and no compunction about mixing aesthetically composed chase sequences with sudden, bloody and brutal violence.  The gorgeous LA photography is by Newton Thomas Sigel, whose films include 3 Kings and The Usual Suspects, and the swift, lucid editing is by Mat Newman, a Refn veteran.  Also notable is the score by Cliff Martinez, a regular member of Steven Soderbergh’s team. 
This side of Michael Mann, rarely do genre efforts draw this kind of cast. Gosling’s streak of quality movies continues, and in what easily could have been a rote Man-With-No-Name kind of role, he brings humanity and a believably heartfelt wish to avoid the violence he wreaks.  Mulligan has perfected the heartfelt yearning she conveyed in An Education and Never Let Me Go; her part here is thin, but she fills it with emotion.  Probably the movie’s biggest surprise is Albert Brooks–he did a jokey convict role in Out of Sight, but here he’s utterly convincing as an aging gangster who’s wearily willing to handle the dirty work himself.  Perlman, Isaac, Cranston and Christina Hendricks all contribute tasty supporting bits.
It’s difficult to sell a movie like Drive, because even great reviews can drive the genre fans away, while promos that center on car chases and shoot-outs may not appeal to the art film crowd.  Gosling, although one of the fastest-rising actors around, has yet to prove that his name can open a movie on its own.  However it does at the box office, however, Drive is a superior example of having your genre and deconstructing it too.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."