Drive (Pinnacle Films) FILM REVIEW

I’VE BEEN WONDERING lately if filmmaking is becoming a dying art. All the talent seems to be going to subscription TV dramas instead. In some ways, that’s not a bad thing: in a serial a great writer can develop characters and storylines that habitually get mashed and beaten to death in the translation from book to that precious two-hour screen adaptation.
But it’s a huge loss really, this almost total absence of big-screen cinema. Okay, so there’s still all that 3D computer-animated bollocks for the kids, and the odd SFX-laden Transformers-style rubbish that would keep even a budgie’s brain entertained for about a nanosecond. It’s certainly rather pointless seeing “art movies” (or any movies that are devoid of special effects) on the big screen in NZ, because they’ll look better on the average high definition TV screen. I saw the latest, tepid adaptation of Jane Eyre yesterday at Cinema 5 in Albany mall’s Event Cinema, and there were three large blemishes on the screen all the way through, presumably caused by something that had got onto the lens. (Maybe the projectionist forgot to wipe it after he sneezed). Apart from that, the picture itself was grainy and – I could swear – the dialogue wasn’t quite in sync with the on-screen action.
It’s with some relief, then, that a film worthy of the real cinema experience is poised to hit our screens. Drive is a rarity these days, a film that flouts genre convention to cross-pollinate a multiplicity of styles, but all for a good cause: to create a genuinely exciting, spine-tingling, immersive movie experience.
Ryan Gosling plays an odd sort of hero, as a part-time mechanic, part-time stunt-car driver, and occasional robbery getaway driver. His character seems almost autistic: someone who rarely speaks, lives in an apartment shorn of the usual domestic accoutrements, and is obsessive about his interests. His simple life is suddenly complicated by the unintended blooming of a relationship with the girl down the hall (Carey Mulligan), moreso when her husband gets out of prison.
It would spoil the plot to reveal too much, but it’s the telling by director Nicolas Winding Refn that makes Drive so special, and it’s easy to see why he won a Palme d’Or for best director at Cannes earlier this year. Where most films are either dialogue-driven, or constructed for dummies (SFX instead of intelligence), in line with Gosling’s character, the dialogue in Drive is minimal. He replaces the lines with finely nuanced performances and an ability to stretch out time, and explain everything in a glance, a slight smile or a wide-open eye.
You could characterize Drive as being influenced by the floating, otherworldly quality of Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the larger-than-life scenarios (and rampant violence) of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. But Refn creates a self-contained world that’s expertly controlled. Yes, there are Lynch-like moments here, but you don’t have to subscribe to an alternative reality to enjoy this film, because it also uses conventional techniques to keep you hooked in and the pulse racing. Yes, there’s some pretty over-the-top violence, but where you expect that from Tarantino, here it’s used sparingly, and contrasts horrifically with the tender love story that plays out at its centre.
I realised later that I never knew much about any of the characters in Drive. Gosling’s character remained a mystery right up to the end, and his love interest’s background is only explained obliquely, and briefly. The really bad guys are explained mostly by their actions, and some brief, wit-laced verbal exchanges. It’s a master class in visual storytelling; you get everything you need.
I could gush about this film for another thousand words, it’s that good. It’s a film that really engages, is smart but also has a heart, and is also as exciting as it is moving. Literally my only gripe is about the songs, which seem to strive for the same kind of “ironic” cheese factor of Julee Cruise in Twin Peaks, but are really just horrible retro synthy things that do their best to spoil a great film. Aside from that quibble, definitely one of the best of 2011. GARY STEEL
4.5 stars
* Drive opens in NZ on November 3

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