Nicholas Winding Refn has already proven himself one of the most auspicious film makers of his generation. His debut film Pusher, chronicled a period in the life of a long time, small fish drug dealer in Copenhagen. Like much of the subject matter Refn seems to have a preference for, there's nothing necessarily groundbreaking, original or unusual about it. The unusual part of his films is in the actual fabric of how he tells a story, and Pusher was the introduction to his atmospheric, moody film making. The two subsequent films in the Pusher trilogy examine Copenhagen's drug world from two other characters perspectives. These films were extremely popular in Europe, and gained him some recognition from people in the U.S. film industry.
The first time the majority of us heard the name Nicholas Winding Refn, it was because of a little film called Bronson (my original review), based on the autobiographies of a man who legally changed his name to Charles Bronson, and is notorious for being the most violent prisoner in the whole of the United Kingdom. It's also the movie that introduced most of us to Tom Hardy (now one of the busiest and most sought after actors in Hollywood), whose performance was like a high speed freight train trampling the audience psyche. The film succeeded not only in being perversely and thoroughly entertaining, but also in conveying the psychology of a truly bizarre and unusual individual. It proved Refn wasn't afraid to reach beyond audience expectations of what they should see.
He took that a step further in the criminally under appreciated Valhalla Rising (my original review), about a fierce warrior who escapes from a clan of Vikings, only to fall in with a group of would be Crusaders who get lost at sea and end up in a land definitely not The Holy Land they were attempting to go join the battle for. The entire film is soaked in a dream like quality that references the likes of David Lynch, Terrence Malik and Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void (a film I also wrote a review for). It is unusual, to say the least, but brilliant and powerful all the same. Mads Mikkelsen (who also starred in the second Pusher film) would be familiar to audiences here from his role as the villain Le Chiffre in the Bond reboot, Casino Royale, but in Valhalla Rising, he proves he can carry the weight of an entire film that is at the same time a blood soaked action drama and in many ways an art film, without speaking a single line. It's a beautifully shot film, and my descriptions of it do it no justice. It's a pretty phenomenal and courageous piece of film making. If you haven't seen it, seek it out immediately. It's available via Netflix Watch Instantly, and makes an entire month's subscription fee worth it.
Now comes Drive, and to be honest, I've been doing my best not to get excited about this film's release. First of all, there's no way any director can continue to direct such great movies indefinitely. There's got to be a dud coming. It's the law of averages, and every single great and/or legendary film maker on the planet has at least one film on his resumé that he'd rather forget. Second, the little bit of the marketing campaign I saw suggested a film that was much more traditional and mainstream than Refn has done before. Third, Refn's influences have always been present in his films, never getting anywhere near the line of cheap imitation by any means, but always present, and I was a little afraid that he might finally get too close to that line or cross it.
The marketing campaign isn't doing this film any favors. It is not your run of the mill action thriller, by any stretch of the imagination. It's definitely a Nicholas Winding Refn action thriller. The law of averages might catch up with him (considering he's been pretty prolific as well), and his influences are definitely still there, but again, this isn't a work of cheap imitation. It's almost more that Refn reaches back for things he loved about films that influenced him and what gets used depends on the film he's making. Drive is the first time I've seen any hint of early Michael Mann in any of his films, and it's a bit more than a hint. Mann's Thief, is definitely one of the spiritual predecessors for Drive, but a distant ancestor all the same. Ryan Gosling plays a driver who earns a living as a part time stunt driver in Hollywood and as a getaway driver in the rest of his time, who upon moving into a new apartment, develops a bond with his new neighbor (played by Carey Mulligan) and her son. Her husband (played by Oscar Isaac), in jail for some petty crime or other is soon released, and is deep in debt to some nefarious characters who threaten the woman and child's safety in their pursuit for payment. In order to protect Mulligan's character and her son, whom he's developed affection for, Gosling's character agrees to help her husband pull off a job which will get him out of the situation. Of course, it's not that easy.
This is a slow build film. It is patient, methodical, and succeeds again in creating a mood and atmosphere that seep out into the audience like liquid through a paper towel. The combination of cinematography and music (the music and the opening credit sequence specifically recalling Michael Mann) make it undeniable. There is a pervasive aura of calm, cool, collected and under control. Unlike Mann's early work, it doesn't have an antiseptic, clinical feel. All of it comes across as being and feeling much more organic in this film, and that works to it's credit. That is probably the thing that all of Refn's films absolutely have in common, an organic feel that makes them both more intimate and more immediate than so many other film maker's work that is as conscious of style. The technicality of the film and the film making process are never central to my reaction to the film or my thoughts on it when I consider it later, though they're always immediately present when I'm sitting there watching it. That's just as true of Drive.
Considering how much of the film takes place without dialog, that's a really important aspect. If the mood and the atmosphere don't work, the film completely and utterly fails. Ryan Gosling is the films lead, and he might have the least number of lines, with the possible exception of a child character. For the first ten minutes of the film, Gosling's Driver only communicates through hand gestures and head nods. Albert Brooks, who might have the least amount of screen time for a major character, probably has the greatest number of lines in the film as well. Another of Refn's talents seems to be that he's able to cast exactly the right person for a given character, and knows how to get great performances out of his actors. I've never particularly disliked either of those actors, but I've definitely never liked them as much as I do in this film. Gosling has previously shown that he's a capable, charismatic actor, but nothing he's done previously crackles with the kind masculine cool that this role does. The comparisons to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name and Steve Mcqueen's Bullitt are apt. As the polar opposites of the narrative, Gosling and Brooks give great performances. Everyone in the film is doing great work though, so it's not really a shock. Carey Mulligan as the neighbor who is essentially the catalyst for the film's events, is as adorable and vulnerable as she's ever been, while in moments presenting a unexpected depth of strength. Ron Perlman... well, he's Ron Perlman, and he's suitably awesome as usual. Bryan Cranston has a small role, completely different from his day job over at Breaking Bad (a series I began watching on Netflix in the last two weeks, and is one of the best things I've ever seen come from television) and still different than the small role as a General in Contagion. He's a phenomenal actor, and the more work he's getting, the more likely audiences are getting to see some great performances.
As much as the film's style recalls many of Refn's influences, and great film's of the past, it's closest kin is probably this years Hanna (yet another film I've reviewed) The narrative, with it's fairy tale illusions and archetypical characters, while using a sparse screenplay seems almost to be the story of a set of characters completely unrelated to Hanna, but who exist in the same world. Where Hanna called back to the stories of young women hunted by elder females who both helped to imbue some characteristic and at the same time envy and hate the characteristic that makes them the subject of the hunt, Drive is about a loner male character seeking redemption for past sins through his involvement with other characters. It's not as evident in Drive, but it's definitely there, from the scorpion on Gosling's jacket to the much more direct narrative element of being the savior of a child character imperiled by a parent's poor choices.
One of the things about Drive that I most respect is that even as it can be a relatively bloody and graphically violent, that violence has weight. Where the rest of the film tends to take it's time, be patient and brooding, the moments of violence tend to be furious, shocking and in real time. In a few places, it gives the audience some idea of what's coming, creating tension and suspense, and when it happens, it happens in a fury, and then it's over. In other instances, there's very little warning or set-up. The result is that we're left to take in the results of what happened afterwards, instead of having them play out in a glossy, surrealistic slow motion, obsessive cinematic French kiss. The incidents of violence in the film aren't more graphic, brutal or bloody than things we're likely to see in any other action thriller or crime film, but they do carry much more sense of consequence and uncomfortable reality. For Gosling's character, as much as there is the feeling that he is a genuine bad-ass that the audience wants to see triumph and we sympathize with his motivation, there's also the very real sense that he's crossing a line he will not be able to easily step back from. The accumulation of those acts takes it's toll on the character in different ways through out the film. I don't subscribe to the theory that violence in media creates violence in society, at all. It's better storytelling and therefore, better film making, when violence is presented with at least some allusion to it's consequences, because it's more honest and more real.
The music and cinematography in the film are mesmerizing and much like Refn's other films work so well together that they almost seem inseparable. He uses a synthesizer heavy soundtrack and score that suggest the synthetic element of L.A. and the lonely dread of such an image laden culture, but the cinematography and lighting are grounded in a much more organic style that make the textures and settings feel real enough that they immediately present a kind of sensory recall that reminds the viewer of places they've been, things they've touched and felt. In tandem, they are like another character in the movie and succeed in representing the two paths Gosling's character has to choose from. Without them working as well as they do separately and together, the film would be a plodding, wandering journey with no suggestion of where it's going, coming from or that it could even set down an anchor anywhere. The degree to which it succeeds in being pure cinema, relying on the visual and aural presentation to tell the story and to convey ideas and emotion, it hints at how much the best of Martin Scorcese's work has also influenced Refn.
It's probably not his best film, but with Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn proves that even a film which isn't the best representation of his abilities is something to see and is going to be better than the majority of films in theaters at the time and probably in that year. It's definitely one of the more purely entertaining films I've seen all year because of the pulsing vitality and energy that are it's engine (pun sort of intended). It might not be a film for the majority of mainstream film goers, because it does subvert the tropes of it's genre so successfully, and because it is as stylistic as it is, but that is one of the things that makes it interesting and enjoyable, and also makes it very much in line with the rest of Refn's films. I'd suggest this to anyone looking for a film with more substance than your average summer/fall movie fare, and isn't turned off by a more grim, hard bitten cinematic world than the topical drama's that are often the only alternative present. It's definitely not going to make you regret the price of the ticket either way.