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I’m a movie lover who has gotten bored with the movies.

I should specify: I’ve become bored with Hollywood movies.

I should specify even further: I’ve gotten bored with Hollywood action movies.

The once-mighty genre (think Raiders of the Lost Ark and Aliens) has become a factory that does nothing but manufacture either the brainless blockbusters of Michael Bay and his knockoffs, or more by-the-numbers vehicles in which Jason Statham spiritually if not literally plays the same impossibly all-around bad ass he first brought to us in 2002′s The Transporter. The last modern action film I remember being emotionally invested in was The Bourne Ultimatum; of this past summer’s highly-anticipated flicks, I found Captain America to be so dull I cannot recall a single line of dialog, and while I was reasonably entertained by Cowboys & Aliens, it played so fast and loose with its internal logic that I would have preferred to watch the cowboys without the aliens. This is the reason why my Netflix queue is almost entirely populated by foreign films and independents.

Against all this, Drive is a breath of fresh air. Or exhaust fumes, if you prefer.

Certainly all of the ingredients are in place for yet another rip-roaring CGI-fueled maelstrom: a taciturn loner who works as a stunt-car driver by day and moonlights as a for-hire criminal getaway driver by night, the (mostly) single mother who lives down the hall, a couple of devious crime bosses, and the reappearance of an ex-con husband that kicks off the inevitable heist gone wrong and thus fuels the rest of the plot, as the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) tries to protect the woman and child he’s grown close to. And that’s almost the movie this was; as of 2008 this film was set to star Hugh Jackman with Neil Marshall (Doomsday, Centurion) attached to direct.

Luckily for us that project never say the light of day, and what we’ve received instead is a film that plays like an existential tone-poem served up as a love-note to the action/crime films of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The bright pink credit sequence and techno soundtrack are an immediate callback to To Live and Die in L.A., and there are so many nods to films like The French Connection, Bullit, and Point Blank that it would take several more viewings for me to be able to compile them all.

There’s a distinct European sensibility to it, as well; with his spartan apartment and taciturn speech patterns, Gosling’s Driver bears more than a passing resemblance to the gunman played by Alain Deleon in Le Samourai. This makes sense considering that Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has worked largely in Europe and is mostly known to American audiences for his 2008 biopic Bronson. What we have then is a blockbuster Hollywood action movie as made by Hollywood outsiders on an indie scale. It’s easy to forget that for all of his heart-throb qualities, Gosling cut his teeth doing indie films and continues to produce his best work there.

Lest you think I’m trying to sell you on some sort of staid, art-house fare though, trust me, this film is very much about action. It’s lean and mean, made from a shooting script that was reportedly less than eighty pages. But it remembers a crucial quality that the Hollywood hit makers have forgotten: action is driven by emotion, most frequently that which can’t be otherwise articulated, and it is on display no where so much as in the Driver. The sexual tension between him and the young mother down the hall (Carey Mulligan, as good here as she was in An Education) is immediately detectable but only commented on once, very late in the game. The characters share two wonderful scenes in elevators, both conducted without dialog; the first establishes their bond, and the second [mild spoiler] consummates it in what might just be the most memorable kiss I’ve ever seen on film.

Gosling does a remarkable job of using body language to suggest the Driver as a man forever compelled forward. He is almost always busy with one task or another, as cool and collected a professional about buying groceries as he is when evading the LAPD. He’s never quite relaxed; even while seated and watching TV with Mulligan’s son, his slightly too-erect posture betrays an internal engine that’s merely idling. The “drive” of the title isn’t merely the character’s role, it’s the principle description of what he is. In a moviegoing environment where BIG has become the adjective du jour regarding emotions and special effects, seeing this kind of subtlety is a drink of cold water after a long slog through the barren, Statham-infested desert.

What struck me about the film is how well the filmmakers were able to take some of the most garish cliches of the genre and spin them into emotionally relevant story points. The ex-con dad isn’t a deadbeat, but a man of regret who made a mistake once and is still paying for it. The two crime bosses (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman) don’t have an army of disposable gunmen to summon at will. And despite her wallflower demeanor, the Mulligan character commits what may be the film’s most surprising (but least bloody) act of violence.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the key supporting performances here. Breaking Bad‘s Brian Cranston plays the Driver’s mechanic/criminal fixer, and with minimal exposition plays a man who is trying to remain optimistic after a lifetime of disappointment while having a little vicarious fun courtesy of his younger colleague; when another character comments, “He’s never had much luck,” you intuitively understand this to be true. Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks has a role that amounts to an extended cameo, but it’s a good one. And Albert Brooks, playing completely against type, is a scene-stealer as a crime boss who really just doesn’t want to deal with all the fuss, and yet is capable of turning ferocious (and back) in a heartbeat. Having mortally wounded an associate, he holds the man’s hand and reassures him that the worst is over.

I’ve praised the acting effusively, and I suppose I should discuss the action as well, this being an action film and all. I’ll be honest here: people who go into the theater expecting to see the kind of movie I mention in the opening will be disappointed. The Driver isn’t a martial arts expert or a crack shot, and the body count is low by modern action film standards. For a film called Drive there are only three car-chase sequences, one at the beginning of each act. There’s no Bourne-style shaky-cam or long fetishistic shots of roaring muscle cars.

But this is where the filmmaker’s emphasis on character over spectacle proves true. The Driver understands that a successful car chase getaway isn’t about being fast and furious, but about knowing the terrain and outsmarting your adversary. When confronting a problem he does so as he handles everything else: with most direct solution possible. It’s nice to see action that stems organically from a character’s personality, when so many action movies treat characters as replaceable pegs to hang the action sequences on. While the action scenes aren’t flashy (and, my research tells me, all done practically, without the aid of CGI), they are memorable. Because it’s here where the film really shows it’s teeth.

While on-screen deaths are infrequent, usually over quick and not particularly gory, they are all unsettling. Every act of violence in the film – car crashes, beatings, gunshots – is up close and personal, with very little screen space between the participants. Drive instinctively understands something that’s been forgotten by the products of the Thrillaminute Factory: killing someone is an extraordinarily intimate act, possibly even more so than sex. After all, a person can fuck you repeatedly, but they can only kill you the once. And it’s going to hurt.

Earlier I referred to the film as existential, and I think that’s appropriate. There are no inherent meanings to any choices made in the movie, only implicit ones; the Cranston character, who lovingly builds stunt cars for movie studios, complains that his creations are valued only for the few moments of footage they provide (subtly indicting Hollywood’s treatment of violence as he does so). To kill someone in defense of another means your victim’s life has less value to you than the life you are protecting. I cannot think of a more subjective meaning, and the film acknowledges this.

Drive is a film concerned with morality that refuses to moralize, leaving the audience with no easy answers about right and wrong, or good and evil. Instead, it’s an action film that allows the characters to use action to demonstrate the subjectively personal meanings they’ve created for themselves, but doesn’t rationalize them. That alone makes it worth seeing.

Matthew Baldwin MATTHEW BALDWIN is a writer, martial artist and all-around misanthrope living in San Diego, California. He's published fiction and poetry in several small literary journals, most of which went out of business soon after. Make of that what you will. He currently holds a fourth-degree black belt in karate, a B.A. from the University of California and an M.F.A. from the University of New Orleans. In his free time he serves as a professional martial arts instructor, working mostly with teenagers. He's currently at work on both a first and second novel, and can be followed/harrassed on Twitter. And please, call him Matt.

35 Responses to “Existentialism in Action: 
A Review of Drive

  1. Gloria says:

    No way that I would forget the incredible actor Gosling is. I first saw him in Lars and the Real Girl and immediately followed up by watching Half Nelson. He’s one of the best actors to emerge in the last decade. And, yes, he’s mind-bendingly sexy.

    I love this review. I really wanted this movie not to suck, and after reading the plot summary I imagined all of the ways it could. I agree completely about the European vs. American sensibility in film, and I’m glad to hear it’s more the former and less the latter.

    Fun review!

    • Matt says:

      A quick scan of his IMDB page reveals that I have only seen two Ryan Gosling movies: this and Fracture, which was a good film utterly ruined by a stupid final three minutes. And that, technically speaking, he cut his teeth doing guest spots on cable television. I could have sworn I’d seen him in more things.

      I actually walked into this almost completely cold, knowing almost next to nothing about the plot and relying on positive word-of-mouth from friends. After how anemic this summer’s lackluster fare was I was dubious, but I’m very glad I went (may do so again). This could have been a huge piece of shit movie, another one of those ones where the pretty boy actor tries to pretend he’s an action hero. And in all honesty, the Oscar-worthy performance by Albert Brooks is by itself worth the ticket price.

      • Cheryl says:

        I highly recommend “The United States of Leland”. It’s an early independent (released a year before “The Notebook”, and after his breakout role in “The Believer”, which I never saw) when Gosling was younger, still trying to break free of his Mickey Mouse Club start. He is riveting in it. It’s a difficult role and he nails it. It was the first time I saw him as an actor to watch. It’s difficult, complex and beautiful.

  2. James D. Irwin says:

    I’ve heard a lot about Drive and it never really interested me in any way— although I should point out I rarely see new film releases and I’m not a huge film fan in the way a lot of people here at TNB are.

    But anyway, I was watching BBC Breakfast this morning and the director of Drive and Carey Mulligan were interviewed. They showed two short clips and they pretty much sold the film to me. The first was a tense driving scene, and the second… nothing really happened. It was just Gosling and Mulligan in a room barely saying anything. But in a brilliant, interesting way.

    This review has only got me more interested…

    If more films interested me like this I’d probably make more of an effort to go the cinema…

    • Thanks, James. I haven’t really gone to see much this year, myself. Costs to damn much, and when I have gone, most of the time I’ve been disappointed, especially with the Hollywood fare. Prior to this the best film I’d seen in the theater so far this year has been The Tree, which is Australian.

      Did you know Mulligan was the guest star/protagonist of that Doctor Who episode “Blink?”

      • James D. Irwin says:

        I don’t think I’ve been at all this year. It’s a shame because the cinema here is a lovely converted church with really comfortable chairs and a licensed bar. A few years ago they had a showing of The Spy Who Loved Me which was fun. One of the last films I went to see at the cinema. I don’t think I’ve been since Iron Man 2 came out, and chances are I won’t go again until the new Batman or Bond films comes out— it’s a small cinema so they only show the big films really. And unless they show Drive I probably won’t have the chance to see it— there is a huge multiplx a £7 train ride away, and then it’s about £7 to get in, and at least £3 to buy a drink. I don’t have that kind of money to just watch a film, and there’s so much great TV at the moment AND there are so many classic films for sale that cost less than £5 the alternatives to the big screen seem more appealing.

        It seems strange to me to charge so much when there are so many cinemas, and so many screens and the only films that get a chance these days are ones designed to pack as many people in as possible. Or re-makes. They’re remaking Point Break for fuck sake… a film that is already as awesome and awful as a film can be.

        I knew Mulligan was in Doctor Who. Everytime I here someone say they should bring her back I feel compelled to point out that she’s moved on to slightly bigger things since. That was a really good episode though.

    • Was that when Refn used what my mate Duncan calls (in a loud wisper) “THE FUCK WORD”?

  3. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    I happened upon this trailer just yesterday and will add it to my long list of films to one day catch up with. Gosling I think is capable of upping the quality of any film he’s in, but what’s really the selling point on this one for me is Brooks as a crime boss. Somehow, and your description seems to confirm this, that fits well, exploring the ugly side of the neurotic schtick. But I need to see it before I extrapolate based on clips.

    I can’t remember the last time I watched an action movie that wasn’t self-parody. I’m beginning to think it’s something I’m doing wrong.

    • Joe Daly says:

      >>I can’t remember the last time I watched an action movie that wasn’t self-parody. I’m beginning to think it’s something I’m doing wrong.<<

      It's like you can see my soul.

    • I am totally with you on the self-parody angle. I’d even say that a large portion of action films that are supposed to be taken seriously come off as parody, largely because they’re recycling the cliches of the genre. Just how many stern heroes can we watch walk away from an explosion in slow motion before it just comes off as mockery? Everyone’s so busy trying to do something “awesome” that they forget to do something with emotional resonance.

      Which is something I really liked about this flick. Every act of violence has consequences. Every death here changes the state of affairs for another character or alters a relationship between two others. That’s something a lot of movies (and not just action films) have been missing lately.

  4. J.P. Smith says:

    Writing with my screenwriter’s cap on, I must say I was disappointed with the film. The trailer is, as sometimes happens, far better than the film, which is full of misjudgments on the part of the director–not giving the actors an inner life is a problem here; Gosling isn’t a monster that’s just wandered out of a cave, he’s a human being with motivations, none of which we see. Which gives us a character without an arc, a journey, a beginning place and an ending place, always a necessity in a movie.

    There are stylistic misjudgments, as well, such as long empty sequences of Gosling staring at the road (or into space) while very loud music plays, as though the writer had run out of ideas and simply fell back on music (and lyrics) to tell us what to think.

    And as for the whole concept, I would have loved to see more, well, driving. There’s actually very little of it, and I thought more of it, skillfully shot to a higher purpose, would have been in order.

    I happen to think Gosling is a terrific actor, and I fear he was somewhat wasted in a film that for me was largely devoid of character.

    • Boltron says:

      @J.P.: Sounds like you wanted a more conventional thriller where things are laid out easier and clearly. Those areas where you felt the film had “run out of ideas” and “fell back on music” actually felt very alive to me — relying not only on music, but on the strength of the actor, as opposed to dumbed-down or overly obvious dialogue. I didn’t have to know what Gosling’s character was thinking or why, it was simply compelling that he *was* thinking in those moments.

      Personally, I’m sick of the artificial three-act arc being imposed on all films by Hollywood convention (for no better reason than “we say so”), and I loved DRIVE for its avoidance of all the things that you found missing. It’s nice when not all movies have to be constructed the same way and do exactly the same things in exactly the same ways and places as every other film. Harkens back to a time in the ’70s when idiosyncratic visions resulted in films that looked and felt very different from one another, versus the factory-manufactured feel of more modern mainstream entertainments.

      • J.P. Smith says:

        Boltron, the last thing I wanted was a conventional thriller, which this easily could have been (a stunt driver is compelled to become a getaway driver for a series of robberies, until a murder is committed that’s pinned on him, etc., etc.). But time is the real estate of cinema, and Refn used his real estate in a lazy manner but doing just what you liked–showing Gosling “thinking”. Which in terms of film is a non-starter, especially when it runs as long as, say, a 3-4 minute tune played a top volume. Thinking has to be made visual, as any screenwriter or director knows, as in, say, “A Beautiful Mind,” a film I disliked tremendously for a myriad of reasons, but which showed the protagonist’s thought processes.

        As for the 3-act structure, well, I would submit that “Drive” has a very traditional 3-act structure. I personally am not glued to it, and when I write scripts I barely acknowledge act breaks. They just show up very naturally, as they do in most movies. And by using acts it gives us, when developing a script with a producer, a language that’s common to both sides of the process. But, no, I like unconventional cinema. I just which “Drive” had been far more unconventional.

        • J.P. Smith says:

          “I just which ‘Drive’ had been far more unconventional” should of course read “I just wish ‘Drive’ had been far more unconventional.”

          And “But time is the real estate of cinema, and Refn used his real estate in a lazy manner but doing just what you liked” should also be amended to read “But time is the real estate of cinema, and Refn used his real estate in a lazy manner by doing just what you liked.”

          Quick replies make ugly mistakes…!

    • Matt says:

      Well, if the style didn’t work for you, that’s a matter of subjective asthetics, which is fine. Plenty of generally well-thought of (and even Oscar-winning) films that I’ve found extremely dull, or flawed stylistically. In a genre where the hero always seems to have the poise and focus of a laser beam, I found it refreshing that this one gives it’s character room to breath, and to consider his options. Too much? Maybe, but personally I don’t think so.

      “Gosling isn’t a monster that’s just wandered out of a cave, he’s a human being with motivations, none of which we see.” Also an accurate description of plenty of other film characters: Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (and similar in Pale Rider or High Plains Drifter), Robert de Niro in Ronin to name a few. What’s Travis Bickle’s motivation in attaching himself to Jodie Foster’s teenage prostitute character? Unclear. What matters isn’t why, but what this suggests about him, and how that subsequently manifests itself in his behavior. I think that’s all very much at work in this film, and why I’m inclined to think of it as “existentialist”: there are no declarative meanings at work, only internalized, subjective ones.

  5. Joe Daly says:

    Matt-

    What an incisive review- I really enjoyed it, due in no small part to the vast context into which you place this film. When a reviewer gives examples of other movies that he found better/worse/alike, it helps me identify his or her perspective, and in turn how to interpret the review. Roger Ebert is particularly good at this. You are too.

    Indulging my petty side, I’m so over people saying what a great actor Ryan Gosling is. That being said, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him phone it in. I do plan to see this. I was on the fence, but now I’m all in. Thx.

    • High praise, man, especially considering this is my first real movie review. I really like Roger Eberts reviews; even when I don’t agree with him on the movie, he always does a phenomenal job of articulating what he thinks works/doesn’t work and why. He’s well-versed in the language of cinema, and you can tell from his writing how in love with the medium he is. Even the slightest of comparisons is humbling.

      A movie like this is very heavily versed in the language of the genre and the films that came before it (albeit in a largely unobtrusive way), so I think it’s important to discuss it within that context. Plus, as a film buff, I like it when a director is able to pay subtle homage to his influences without drawing huge attention to them. It’s a lot like Tarantino’s early works in that regard, though much more subdued about it.

      The fuss over Gosling IS off-putting for sure; pretty certain I’ll never see The Notebook. But there’s no escaping the fact that he picks interesting, challenging roles, and puts his all into them. That’s something to be respected, if not admired.

  6. Bravo! Well done.

    This is one of those rare films that has kept me thinking about it, mulling it over, reflecting on it. I’ve initially disliked aspects of it (those that J. P. points out along with the soundtrack) and then changed my mind (have been listening to the soundtrack obsessively). And I want to see it again so I can keep considering it. I can’t say I’ve had that reaction to any other action film, art-house or otherwise. That Drive engages viewers in this way, I think, is the mark of something really exceptional.

    In the end, I love the sparseness of character and dialogue (it’s more so in Valhalla Rising), and I don’t mind that we don’t fully see the driver’s motivating factors in the beginning. He’s very Eastwood in that way. Very Pale Rider. The soundtrack, it seems to me, doesn’t fill in the emotional elements as much as it stands in contrast. A ultra-feminine voice croons he’s a “real human being” when he often seems rather inhuman. I loved the tension inherent in that.

    And Albert Brooks. Man. He was chilling. Who woulda thought?! (SPOILER ALERT) That scene with Cranston (I’ll try to be vague here, but, you know, THE scene) has to be one of the creepiest, stomach-turning scenes in bad-guy history with its mixed kindness and violence. That intimate act. And it’s Albert Brooks.

    • Gloria says:

      To be clear: Finding Nemo Albert Brooks, right? Marlin? The lovable, heartbroken, neurotic clown fish? That Albert Brooks?

    • Matt says:

      How much I think about a film afterwards is the yard stick I use to measure how successful it is, even if it’s not something I aesthetically consider “good” or not. There are plenty of high-craft films out there that are also astonishingly generic, as forgettable as the mass-produced popcorn served at the concession counter.

      You’ve hit on something here that I really liked about the film: how it used some of the tropes of 80′s films in contrast to the way they were used in the original source material. The neon pink credits of a John Hughes flick set over a robbery in progress. A synth-pop song about finally becoming a hero set over a scene where a character has just been viscerally beaten to death. There’s a subtle suggestion at work that all of this is actually being filtered by the Driver’s inner narrative; he’s a guy who’s immersed in Hollywood culture and is living out what he considers the role of an action hero to be. Which is what large percentages of the audience are doing, too.

  7. Cheryl says:

    This is a well-written and well thought-out review, Matt. I appreciate your character-centered approach, especially for an action film. As I get older, i find myself much much more picky about movies I will go see, especially with babysitting costs factored in. When I read advance press of this movie, my first thought was “What is Ryan Gosling doing in an action movie?” Siimilar to my first thoughts about “The Notebook” with him as a romantic movie lead. He managed to make that role compelling – and unreasonable sexy (although I could have done without the maudlin bookends, and I struggled with trying to wrap my mind around James Garner as the older version of that character.)

    • Matt says:

      With so many action films treating characters like disposable acessories to the plot, it was nice to see one where everyone, small character or large, is treated as integral. There isn’t a death in this film that does affect the course of the plot. Which is smart, I think. Action matters more when there are consequences, and they way characters deal with the consequences allows the audience to become emotionally invested in them.

      I’ve never seen The Notebook so I can’t speak to it’s quality, butI wonder if Gosling wouldn’t have been better off not having been in it. Yes, it cemented him as an up-and-coming name, but the ubiquity of it also cast him as a bit of a romantic lead. Still, it helped give him the clout to get this made, so there’s that.

  8. JohnO says:

    Well, heck. I wasn’t going to see this, for all the reasons you so aptly described. And now you’ve changed my mind. Nice, thoughtful review.

  9. Great review! I am so excited to see this film (at the drive-in no less!). There’s something about the clips and trailers I’ve seen that lines up with The Killer Inside Me, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. Have you seen it? What do you think?

    • Matt says:

      I have not! But from what I understand about The Killer Inside Me, both use the idea of violence as an intimate act to achieve an unsettling effect in the audience. There were reports that Jessica Alba actually couldn’t bring herself to sit through the whole thing once she finally saw a cut of it – - which really makes it of interest to me.

  10. This is the first I’ve ever heard of this movie. Needless to say, I’m a bit out of the loop. I see movies pirated on Chinese TV when they’ve just popped onto DVD elsewhere, and then I watch them, but I never see trailers or reviews or hype.

    Anyway, this sounds like a very watchable movie. Like you, I’ve also become a bit bored with the genre (or numerous genres) and need something that I won’t just forget after the credits.

    • Matt says:

      I walked into the theater pretty much cold, with only a few word-of-mouth reviews to go on. I’m happy I did, actually. With the prevelance of social media it’s becoming harder to interact with pop culture in a vacuum, so this was a really pleasant surprise.

      There are pirated movies in China? What?! I’m SHOCKED.

  11. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Hey Matt. I can’t read this because I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I like a pure view. I still know nothing about it. (Yep, I live in a cave.)

    Anyway, just wanted to holler at my boy.

  12. Stephan says:

    See ‘the notebook’. I agree with the thread…and think gosling is awesome for all the reasons put forth. I cant wait to see ‘drive’. ‘half nelson’ was also great. But see the notebook because gosling really does pull off a sappy performance. And heck, he made a movie I otherwise would have denied enjoying into one I would.

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  14. Finally, finally seen the bugger, having avoided all reviews, discussions and even the trailer for months. A good thing too, because the trailer’s a bit spoilery. Not to a Men in Black extent (that had four different TV spots which, between them, gave away every single “surprise” in the film) but still, I’m glad I didn’t see it.

    Drive made me think the unthinkable, namely that the 1967 Pontiac GTO might be as desirable as the ’66. I know, right? A ’66 turns up as the unlikely transport of some young bloke in the utterly forgettable 2005 film London; having called it utterly forgettable, one of its few memorable aspects is that it features The Stath, as a character who’s out of place because he’s too old and too British. I found myself identifying with him for some reason. The film’s such a yawn that I actually wound through to his appearances. And the GTO’s a convertible so it doesn’t really count.

    “Me digress” – Alastair Cookie, Monsterpiece Theater

    So, yes, Drive. You and the commenters above have said everything, really. I’ll add to the praise for the casting and performance of Albert Brooks. I do like a bit of against-type casting; The Road to Perdition isn’t the greatest film, but casting Tom Hanks as a ruthless gang enforcer? Nice. And as a shambling, greasy repulsive killer – who else but Jude Law?

    Digressed again.

  15. More relevant: Half Nelson is well worth a look. Goz is twitchy and wretched and not particularly likeable (and very good); 17-year-old Shareeka Epps is excellent too. The Believer is an interesting variation on the American History X story. Not entirely successful, but quite a contrast to the Mickey Mouse Club.

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