Dear gods, I cannot believe it has taken me this long to wrap up the New Zealand International Film Festival. I guess taking on the challenge of separate, full reviews for each film I saw (whilst working a day job, then quitting said day job to come to Austin, TX for Fantastic Fest) got the best of me. In fact, since the Closing Night of the NZIFF I've actually managed to see Drive again (here in Austin, at the Alamo Drafthouse). So, I actually hope I can give you a better account of the film than I would have otherwise. Y'see, the screening at the NZIFF was unfortunately marred by sound issues - not all the way through and not something that anyone could have really done anything about. But it distracted me and took me out of the film just as I was really getting in to it. But hey, enough of my blathering blatherskites! On with the film (review)!
What it boils down to is this: Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive is an explosion of sweaty LA noir, 80's pop songs and ice-cold coolness. I've been a fan of Refn since his real breakout film, the Tom Hardy starring Bronson. I haven't caught his Pusher trilogy (yet) and I have no idea what happened to the release of Valhalla Rising down here but I'll be tracking them all down now.
Ryan Gosling (once Young Hercules) is The Driver; stunt-driver for the movies by day, getaway driver by night. He has his own unique code he sticks to and he's the guy you want driving if you want to get away - nobody can beat him behind the wheel. He's not too concerned with money, but all of his gigs (legitimate and otherwise) are put together by his mentor, and only friend, the limping Shannon (played by a rumpled Bryan Cranston) who always seems to have his nose out for a score, though he keeps running into bad luck. Carey Mulligan is Gosling's neighbour Irene, and he makes an honest-to-gods connection with them. There's also two low-level gangster crooks Shannon is mixed up with: the quietly terrifying Albert Brooks (Nemo's dad!) as Bernie and the great Ron Perlman swaggering around as Nino, a Jewish gangster who wishes he were Italian (even going so far as to own and run a tiny pizzeria).
Just as Gosling and Mulligan are really connecting with one another - though not in bed as their courtship is almost entirely desexualised, Refn aiming for something more than surface titillation - her husband (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison. And he's brought trouble with him. Trouble The Driver offers to help him get out of which, because this is a neo-noir, brings even more trouble. And that's when The Driver; the man seemingly always in control; the man who barely speaks unless needed to; the man who is so damned cool he wears tight white shirts, a denim jacket with jeans and a white satin jacket with a scorpion on the back, loses his cool. And his vengeance is furious and bloody.
Refn makes excellent use of the violence, using it for booming punctuation with it being short, sharp and brutal. His use of slow-mo is elegant and never tips over into cheesy or overused. He manages a balancing act with Drive; at once evoking slick action films of the 80's while making a film very much of now. The soundtrack is a gorgeous soaking of synth-laden tunes, with a few that stick in your head for days afterwards. And for a man who doesn't drive, Refn sure knows how to shoot a car chase; they're not some of the best car chases ever put to screen but they are more than involving as the vehicular beasts crash, glide and accelerate. Drive (especially after my second viewing) left me with a huge film-geek smile on my face and is a film I am looking forward to seeing again (again).
And as a final note: I was lucky enough to first see the film without having seen any trailers, or really hearing too much about it (aside from word leaking out from Cannes that it was very, very, very good) and I am thankful for that. The trailer I've seen playing in American cinemas pretty much gives away the entire film - don't bother watching that. Just see the film.