With the exception of Tree of Life, Drive was probably the most hyped 2011 film for me. I heard an onslaught of positive praise for the film claiming it to be completely unlike anything released last year and reminiscent of some brilliant hidden gem of seventies Italian cinema. I was somewhat worried that it would be a let down no matter how good the film was, because my expectations were so incredibly high. However, I fell in love with every bit of the film from the ambient soundtrack to the excellent action scenes, not to mention the stellar cast that made a film about arguably normal people seem otherworldly. I did not go into the film realizing that the director was Nicolas Winding Refn, who this blog recognized for his work Valhalla Rising, after discovering this it helped to explain the intense pacing and intimate attachment to silent characters. Drive, like Refn's previous work, is poetically violent, often placing acts of aggression in the center of the frame forcing viewers to fully acknowledge the acts without being able to put up a cinematic wall of distance. Drive, is an incredibly reflective film that demands viewers engage with the work and question the legitimacy of actions, particularly those that cross the borders of morality and legality. No character in the film is fully justified in their actions, nor is any character in need of full on reprimanding for their actions. Drive questions life's gray areas and like a good film provides very few answers.
Drive, follows the appropriately named Driver (Ryan Gosling) who as his name suggests works driving cars. On the acceptable side of the law, he works as a mechanic and stunt driver for movies, while also providing getaway cars for criminals during the evening. He works from a law of ethics that make him not questions individuals behaviors while he is working, but he makes it very clear that beyond the five minutes that he provides a getaway that he wants nothing to do with the individuals he is helping. He seems fine working side jobs for his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) and his sketch associates Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Pearlman) until he runs into his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) who despite having a kid and husband in jail becomes an love interest to driver. After close involvement with her, it is revealed that her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) will be leaving jail and returning to live with Irene. Driver's infatuation with Irene causes him to stick around and help the family despite it being very clear that Irene has chosen to stay with Standard. It is at this point that it becomes clear that Standard has a very shady past and owes large debts to people he encountered while in prison. Agreeing to help Standard clear his name for the sake of Irene and her son, Driver goes against his strict moral ways and ends up stuck in the middle of a monetary transaction far larger than anything involving Standard or even his boss Shannon. As a result, he becomes an enemy of Nino whose heartlessness leads him to a rampage of killing, which he uses Bernie to enact. In a calm rage, Driver proceeds to kill those who interfere with his task, including Nino's henchmen, Nino and by the end of the film Bernie. Realizing that even after the death of Standard his life with Irene is impossible. The film closes with Driver alone driving the streets of L.A. lost and in a state of despair.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Drive is a film about moral ambiguity, particularly that of individual desires and their effects on societies functionality. Driver for a considerable portion of the film is a man who borders the words of criminal and lawful choosing to engage in each action contingent on his own self-advancement. Despite this lifestyle though, it is clear that Driver is a morally just person, which is evidenced by his relationship with Irene and her son, while it is clear that he possesses strong feeling for her, he also helps in their time of need simply because he understands that it is the right thing. Even characters like Bernie and Nino have qualities of morally redeeming qualities. Bernie is clearly an individual who has become so involved with a criminal life that to leave would assure his death. As such, when he is forced to kill his friend Shannon he does so in a pain free manner, slitting his wrists to assure that he dies quickly and quietly. While it may seem inhumane, given Bernie's situation it is incredibly cavelier. Even Nino's actions are justified, he makes note of his disdain for his cousins who dismiss him simply because he is a Jew, often talking down to him, despite Nino being considerably older than anyone else. Finally, the viewers are supposed to empathize with Standard who clearly became involved in unfortunate crimes, which forever caused him to be a target for mobsters. As such, he, like Bernie, becomes inextricably entrenched within the crime world and his only means of escape is death. It is a film that focuses on life decisions and their last effects on a person future, implying that in some tragic cases no amount of redemption can assure change.
Drive is a glorious bit of filmmaking. It was certainly under-appreciated during the awards season and probably under viewed as well. The bluray is a thing of beauty and without a doubt one of the must own films of 2011.