Hyping a movie as a "must-see" can be a dangerous habit and should therefore be treated judiciously. It can lead to unfulfilled expectations by an audience and if used too often cheapen the recommendation. Happily, that's not the case with Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive." The "Bronson" helmer won the best director prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival over noteworthy competition from Terrence Malick and Pedro Almodovar (among others) for his work on the new thriller and after catching it at the 2011 LA Film Fest Friday evening it's clear the honor was distinctly deserved.
Set in modern day Los Angeles amid stylistic flourishes from the '80s, "Drive" storyline is actually quite simple. A quiet, but talented twentysomething (Ryan Gosling) spends his days employed at the garage of a day dreaming ex-stuntman Shannon (Bryan Cranston). He also works part-time as a stunt driver for movies and TV shows under Shannon's tutelage. Clandestinely, the rest of his day often fins him in the role of a getaway driver for criminals. His interest in this particular endeavor doesn't seem to be the money, but the thrill of evading his pursuers through the streets and highways of LA. As the film elegantly depicts in a spectacular opening sequence, "Kid" as Shannon calls him (he has no other name), has amazing and subtle car handling skills that would make the "heroes" of the "Fast and the Furious" series blush.
As the story progresses, the driver randomly meets Echo Park neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. There is immediately a connection between the two, but Irene is a young wife waiting for her husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Issac), to get out of prison. Concurrently, Shannon has made a risky venture with two LA criminal figures, Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), to fund a stock car that the Kid will drive, no doubt providing them with an impressive return on their investment (or Bernie's really). When Issac returns from jail the two storylines come together in a collision that isn't that surprising. However, Winding Refn's deft hand and rich performances across the board elevate it all to something more impactful than the original source material.
Gosling, in particular, takes a character with few lines and little background (Shannon at one point reveals he just showed up one day asking for a job) and uses that to his advantage. We see kindness in the driver from the beginning, especially in his relationship with Irene's son, but the more the film progresses Gosling begins to chip away at a darker side the driver's personality he has spent most of his energy trying to contain. It's a fantastic turn that should win the former Oscar nominee more fans as he continues an unconventional and quality based road to stardom.
Brooks has received a lot of early praise for his role as a former Hollywood indie producer who has clearly been scared by the industry. The former funnyman is absolutely great here, but its his on screen partner, Perlman, who might be more impressive. His scenes are short, but he finds a way to overcome the role's expected stereotypes and leaves you wishing he had more screentime. Mulligan, like Gosling, has to deliver much of her performance without exposition, but she brings much more to Irene than what we have to assume was on the page. Christina Hendricks has a small, but pivotal role as a young woman caught up in a heist gone wrong.
It's easy to say Winding Refn, along with cinematographer Thomas Newton Siegel (the best work he's ever done), is delivering a homage to everything from "Blade Runner" to Michael Mann's "Collateral" or William Friedkin's "To Live and Die in L.A.," but the Danish born filmmaker has his own talented eye at play here. The man is truly a talent (now let's just hope it doesn't go to his head). "Drive" is Refn's first "Hollywood" movie and judging by the response so far and his attachment to the remake of "Logan's Run," it won't be his last.
On a final note, "Drive's" inclusion at the LA Film Festival was more appropriate than the fact it takes place in the same city. The end of the film's introductory scene occurs in the same parking garage everyone at Friday night's gala ended up parking their cars at L.A. Live. Small world in a big city.
"Drive" opens nationwide on Sept. 16.
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