Beardface Reviews: Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn is an Effortlessly Cool Neon-Noir

How do you make a film that feels vintage yet completely fresh at the same time? And not only that but make it one of the year’s most interesting films from what will be a major new presence on the Hollywood film scene. Yes, an exciting new artist who is interested in making mainstream movies… but with a catch, Nicolas Winding Refn will be delivering ‘Hollywood’ in a whole new package. Drive is bravura filmmaking is ever there was cause for that word and I knew it the moment the hot-pink letters hit the screen after the insanely gripping opening sequence. The hot-pink not only announced the film had arrived but also the filmmaker.

Nicolas Winding Refn has made six films to date, three of which fall under one banner – The Pusher Trilogy – and Drive marks a significant departure for the director in terms of showcasing his commercial potential. And I don’t mean making him a commercial filmmaker but seeing if his unique style of filmmaking can appeal to a wide audience if you populate it with stars – who can also act by the way, brilliantly – and make its narrative familiar, straightforward and, well, pulsating with tension and violence. This is pulp art filmmaking at its very best. Or just filmmaking at its very best, which is why NWR was awarded Best Director at Cannes and there was significant word that is was competing hard for the Palme D’Or. Let’s hope other festivals (LAFF, TIFF, NYFF) can help generate buzz for the filmmaker and his excellent neon-noir, so that the love remains come American awards seasons. But it’s certainly not just NWR that deserves all the credit, he and a number of artists have crafted a wonderfully odd film together.

Newton Thomas Sigel (Bryan Singer’s go to DoP) shot a beautiful film with it’s precise framing, ramping and racking, plus constant but subtle movement (unless it’s during the driving sequences, which are pulsing and kinetic). He’s a filmmaker of the medium range, so the rare times he goes to extreme long shots or close ups, they are even more striking. Not a movement or moment wasted or overwrought with taught editing by Matt Newman. It’s all in service of building the tension and serving the story. The elevator sequence is perhaps as stunning as anything you saw in the hallway in Inception. It’s not as technically sophisticated or spectacular but no less calculated and way more emotionally resonant. This film has a lot of emotion, whether dripping with heart, tears or blood. Oh, and you can add Cliff Martinez (a Soderbergh regular) to the list on collaborators that truly make this film an experience, with the soundscape playing as key a role as any (so also, a large credit to the sound designers/mixers/editors).

And this is all before mentioning the talent in front of the camera. Working from a script by Hossein Amini and based on a novel by James Sallis, Drive has maybe the fewest lines of dialogue in what is sure to be a Best Picture candidate. You’ll hear a lot about how this film was influenced by the great actioners of the 80s like Mann or Hill or whatever other name they want to draw out of a hat but this is nothing like their work in terms of its operatic nature and the way NWR elevates it from pulp to Art. Yes, I used a capital on art. This feels like a riff on the French 60s with  Jean Pierre Melville’s work in particular coming to mind, Gosling playing his variation of Le Samourai (Alan Delon… I added that for someone in particular, he can be the ultimate judge of that). This film, with its score and gore, is more electric though, as is Gosling. He goes from his quiet smile and a childlike demeanor to hard as stone in a heartbeat, and his heartbeats, the intensity, race as fast as he drives. His Driver reminds me of a more emotionally available ‘Man With No Name’ and like any noir, there’s a strong Western vibe here (just substitute horses for cars). My mind instantly thought of Shane, with Driver’s relationship with the young boy among other Western tropes.

And with the hero comes the villain, and in that we get the other standout and award worthy performance in the film from Albert Brooks. Brooks plays one-half (the funnier, smarter, deadlier) of a pair of Jewish mobsters – the other being Ron Perlman in a charismatically dangerous turn – with whom Driver gets entangled thanks to a rare relationship he builds first with his boss – the always great Bryan Cranston – and second with his neighbour – the lovely and charming Carey Mulligan. It’s Gosling and Mulligan’s sure performances (as well as Cranston as Driver’s only friend) that make me willing to believe that the stakes are worth driving for and this isn’t purely an exercise in style or effortless cool. Effortless cool… that’s a phrase I often use to describe Godard’s Breathless, and like that iconoclastic filmmaker says, ‘all you need is a girl and a gun.’

The whole cast give great performances but none like Gosling and Brooks. They make formidable adversaries, which instantly makes any movie that much more worthwhile, especially when you add Refn’s impeccably precise direction the captures the various moods, plays with your expectations and delivers a hyper-stylized version of reality. An honest look at violence and consequences and the scorpion and the frog. This is a film you have to see. Do you understand?

Drive Trailer…

Official synopsis: “Ryan Gosling stars as a Los Angeles wheelman for hire, stunt driving for movie productions by day and steering getaway vehicles for armed heists by night. Though a loner by nature, Driver can’t help falling in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a vulnerable young mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict husband Standard (Oscar Isaac).

After a heist intended to pay off Standard’s protection money spins unpredictably out of control, Driver finds himself driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly serious criminals (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman). But when he realizes that the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash in his trunk-that they’re coming straight for Irene and her son-Driver is forced to shift gears and go on offense.

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One response to “Beardface Reviews: Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn is an Effortlessly Cool Neon-Noir

  1. I’m still at a loss for words Carpie…

    I can’t stop thinking about Drive. I agree with you 100%. I think it was made for me or something. As soon as it started I kept thinking of Mann and how he shot LA in Heat, but then the neon colors create a different (less blue, hah) LA. Then I’m thinking about Bronson, Delon, Lino Ventura and other silent-type anti-heros, but midway through I couldn’t think of anyone in the driver’s role but Gosling (and I’ve never been a fan of his!). From now on, I’m comparing films to this.

    Also, the music! The violence! Oh my! It’s simply beautiful. It was like something out of Goodfellas. I knew Winding was something else after I saw Valhalla,but man he’s got me pumped about the future. Melville’s ‘hero’s had no emotion–just a trench coat and pistol–but Winding is floating through my mind like Melville, Peckinpah, Leone, and my boys!

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