DRIVE is a film that could have easily been made by Michael Mann in the height of his 80’s neo noir phase. It would have starred William Petersen, Robert Prosky, Tom Noonan, Dennis Farina – the seminal Mann players. Tangerine Dream would have composed a remarkable score. But it wasn’t, and that’s what makes this film an undeniable masterpiece. It was made by Nicolas Winding Refn, with Ryan Gosling transforming himself into a top tier actor, and Cliff Martinez providing a hypnotic score in the year 2011.
There are many aspects of the film to marvel over. The vibrant neon color scheme, the stoicism and deep introspective turn from Gosling, Refn’s tranquil direction. Career pivoting performances from Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston. There is such a fertile quality to this film that sets the tone for this decade’s cinematic landscape.
Gosling, who has been remarkable since DRIVE, is perfect in this film. His dialogue is minimal, as are his physical actions. His performance is commanded through his eyes. He’s always watching, always internal, he is slowly calculating everything.
The forbidden love between Gosling and Carey Mulligan is handled with such sensibility and grace by Refn. It is never overplayed, and at no point in the film does it become generic. The purity of their relationship splashes off the screen and leaves impending doom on the viewer.
Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks are phenomenal in the film. Cranston completely shakes his comedic shtick as well as the trajectory of Walter White. He’s likable, due to his casting, but overall he’s smarmy and pathetic. Neck tattoos, chain smoking, hobbling around the frame looking for his next get rich quick deal.
Brooks, who was completely robbed of an Academy Award nomination, is a fascinating antagonist. Yes, he’s the monster, but he’s also genuine. He doesn’t want to do what he does, but his back is against the wall due to the unraveling of the plot. As the viewer, we like him, even when he’s pulling an eyeball from a guy’s head with a fork. Because the guy he’s doing it to had it coming.
Refn struck gold with this film, and by making a mainstream-ish film, he was able to gather the clout to make whatever he wanted in the future, no questions asked. ONLY GOD FORGIVES and the much anticipated NEON DEMON are complete validations. Refn has a progression that is akin to post TREE OF LIFE Malick; with each new film, he’s not only challenging the audience, but himself as an artist. DRIVE is one of the finest films of this decade, and it only grows more poignant and incredible as time passes.