Imagine a 1960s French crime drama directed by Michael Mann and starring Steve McQueen.
That’s Drive in the easiest way I can possibly describe it. I can imagine the average audience hating this film. Those raised on Michael Bay will wonder why an action film features very little action and is focused more on the main character’s isolation and moods. It would be the equivalent of pausing Die Hard to show John McClane making facial expressions as he fires his weapon.
But it works with this material as the story of Drive is meant to deconstruct the heroic figure rather than praise their usually amoral means. At the very least, it is a far more unique film than the advertisements let on.
A Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who goes unnamed throughout the film, moonlights as a getaway driver. He is in love with his neighbor Irene (Casey Mulligan) and her child Benicio (Kaden Leos). The child’s father, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison, but is released. Sadly, some gangsters claim that this man owes them money. The driver offers to help Standard settle his debts by helping him perform a pawn shop robbery. Everything goes wrong, and the driver finds a contract has been put on him by the gangsters Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks).
Let’s start with Gosling, who is the best aspect of the film. When I said that this film could have starred Steve McQueen, I was not kidding. As McQueen did, Gosling exudes an air of confidence and mystery. He says very little, his face is rather stoic, and his past is not examined. He is defined entirely by what he does and what he is contemplating. Yes, the film claims he is the hero because his intentions are heroic. Never mind that he is a criminal and is capable of shocking acts of violence that he seemingly enjoys committing. Of course, many such action heroes are categorized in this way. But Drive seems to be one of the few modern films that wishes to say something about the way violence seemingly characterizes supposedly good actions.
The Driver is a lot like Travis Bickle in this regard. He wants to be a hero like he undoubtedly sees in the films that he is working on. He sees a chance through Irene, but thinks that he is in a film and that the people he kills are just characters in the film of his life – maybe when the camera stops rolling, they will get up and dust themselves off. Even the ambiguous ending is reminiscent of Taxi Driver and demonstrates that their may not be any happy endings for people in this world.
I could go on about The Driver – the entire film is centered around his characterization. But everything else is just as worthy of mention. Albert Brooks gives a stunning performance (which will probably net an Oscar nomination) as a hard as nails mob man. He is practically unrecognizable in his demeanor. Casey Mulligan’s neighbor girl does not devolve into a damsel in distress figure (as is tempting) but is relatively strong in her own right. No emphasis is made that she is a single parent because she herself does not seem to view it as a weakness. She comes across as a confident woman and it is easy to see how the Driver falls in love with her. They may not be explored very much, and in some characters (particularly Bertha but these individuals fit into the theme of the movie within a character’s mind.
Still, the film mostly works because of Gosling and the way that both the script and the director define his character. Gosling plays him as a blank slate that absorbs the violence around him, and the director is substituting the driver for the audience in the way that both are offered to become voyeurs in a violent world. The driver’s dreams are more common than people realize – ask the people who enlist in the military.
Drive is, without question, one of the year’s best films. It is a film that is meditative rather than exploitative and that actually has something to say about onscreen violence. It is also a film that has no right to be as good or as smart as it really is. Even the soundtrack, written by Clint Mansell, emphasizes that theme of isolation and the question of heroic actions. No one in this film may be redeemable, but sometimes the journey to that redemption may be enough to bring them peace.
Also, the stunt driving actually looks realistic.