Stylish. Quiet. Explosive. Understated. Ultraviolent. All these adjectives amply describe the neo-noir indie action film “Drive,” but more than any of them, the most fitting would be “smart.” From start to finish, every element shows an exemplary polish that isn’t seen very often in nation-wide theater releases. From the skillful direction, to the cinematography and writing, all of “Drive’s” pieces are carefully, thoughtfully compounded together to make one riveting experience.
The plot is fairly basic, but if one goes into “Drive” expecting an over-produced Hollywood action film, some kind of Jason Statham-y vehicle of 90 action-packed minutes, they will be utterly surprised by the brains “Drive” brings to the genre. A far more apt comparison would be Quentin Terantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” Like that film, “Drive” is set in the gritty, sun-blasted landscape of south L.A., and paints a convincing and realistic portrait of what life is like for the hardest there.
The main character (Ryan Gosling, “Blue Valentine”), who is never named in the film, is a mechanic who moonlights as both a stunt driver for Hollywood films, and a getaway driver for assorted jobs. He gives his clients in the latter case five minutes to do what they have to do, and get out.
The first scene of the film, before the credits, immediately takes you into the heavy atmosphere of such jobs, with a suspenseful robbery and police chase, and the driver skillfully navigating through LAPD nets.
Eventually, the driver befriends his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan, “An Education”) and at the sudden release of Irene’s prison-bound husband Standard (Oscar Isaac, “Robin Hood”), the film takes flight. About halfway through, “Drive” completely shifts gears from an understated, quiet slice-of life in L.A., to the apex of violent crime drama and suspense.
With sudden, almost spontaneous super violence erupting throughout the second half of the film, “Drive” shows signs of a Terantino or Cohen brothers effort. However, while the sudden brutality of “Drive” is akin to these auteur approaches, it differs from them in one important way: dialogue.
In films from the previous two directors, violent elements are often made even more dramatic by the extreme contrast with dark humor. “Drive,” on the other hand, utilizes long pauses before the violence to produce a polarizing “quiet before the storm” effect that makes the brutality so much more shocking to viewers.
The main character has a definitive lack of dialogue throughout most of the film. This, coupled with his lack of a name, seems to echo the strong, silent type of character popularized by Clint Eastwood’s performances in 1960’s spaghetti westerns, where he both had no name, (often referred to as “the man with no name,”) as well as being quiet, and slow to act. Gosling’s driver character is similarly soft-spoken, yet uncompromisingly strong when needed.
The costume of the main character plays an equally important role. Often taking off or putting on his dark brown leather driving gloves, driving late at night, he communicates much of his inner character nonverbally. Throughout the entire film, the driver wears a grey satin jacket with a golden scorpion embroidered on the back, directly referencing the story of the scorpion and the frog later in the film as a metaphor of the film’s plot. As in the fable, the driver effectively “carries” the scorpion on his back, signifying him as the frog. Thus, his natural enemies in the film seek mutually assured destruction due to their natural impulse. This extremely apt analogy serves to add yet another layer to the film’s narrative.
“Drive” originally opened at this year’s Cannes, and was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or and Best Director, winning the latter. This alone is enough to show the difference between “Drive” and a generic mass-release action film. While “Drive” is unquestionably not for everyone, fans of good cinema will be drawn to it. W. That being said, those looking for an action film will also enjoy it at face value, as the choreography, as well as the driving, is exceptionally polished.