If you told me that an art house film style and a populist film style could exist in the same film, I would call you crazy. That is until I saw Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film starring Ryan Gosling as a stunt-car driver who moonlights as a getaway car driver. The film does a remarkable job of combining a very art house style of directing with a very populist story.
Drive starts off with a thrilling escape form a robbery scene. The scene is intense but also takes a slow and chillingly realistic approach to the escape. More importantly it sets the tone for the rest of the film. This is not your average action-thriller about cars. For instance, what the film does next is slowly build up the characters and their relationships. It at some points gets a little too slow for the film's own good, but you have to give the film credit for taking a different approach. It also pays off with the second half of the film when the quiet nature of the film is abruptly and shockingly replaced by a balls-to-the-wall set of chase scenes and assassination attempts (Speaking of quiet, the stark change between silence and mass commotion is perfectly brought to life by the amazing sound mix). This move results in action more engrossing than whatever Michael Bay or Justin Lin could ever dream of creating.
The big takeaway from this is that Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) is clearly one of the finest directors out there. He took a genre that is quickly becoming stale and a script that is definitely not the film's strong suit, and created one of the best films of the year. His approach to every scene seemed to be to try to find a new way to put on a screen what were stereotypical scenes of the genre. The best example of this is in a pivotal fight scene when he focuses the camera on the shadows of the combatants (speaking of which the cinematography was another highlight of the film as it made you bunch up in nervousness by lingering on its subjects). Another highlight of Refn's direction was that he actually brought a sense of ambiguity to the film. The technique is never used in the action/thriller genre so it was a welcome surprise, but it also was put to perfect use in a romantic storyline that was easily the worst written aspect of the film. On the screen it ended up being one of the better parts of the film.
A lot of what worked with the romantic storyline was also due to the great work from the two actors involved. Ryan Gosling is quickly become a true star. He completely carries this film and the camera is in love with him. He doesn't get much dialogue to say, but sometimes actions speak louder than words. Such is the case with his performance. With just facial expressions or body movements, Gosling is able to convey more than your average actor could with their moves. The other side of the romantic story, Carey Mulligan, is no slouch either. She doesn't get much material, but what makes her work great in this film is that she doesn't overplay anything. Everything is done so subtlety and it makes everything she does so realistic.
Besides those two, the film is rounded out by a sturdy supporting cast. Bryan Cranston is great, playing against type as Ryan Gosling's mentor. Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks are perfectly cast as a mob leader and a robber. However, the highlight has to be Albert Brooks as a greasy, but tough as nails mob boss. Brooks plays the character with such charm, that it is so much more shocking when he actually gets his hands dirty.
Although, it definitely has some script issues, Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling turns a weakness into an exhilarating film.
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