The word “masterpiece” is thrown around quite a bit these days, and usually when applied to a film, it often refers to works of towering European neo-classicism. I didn’t initially believe a film about a stunt driver would be one of the greatest films of all time, and perhaps a contender for greatest film of the 21st century. Of course, I didn’t expect Drive to be much – which made the fact that it is a bona fide masterpiece all the more fascinating, because this is such an odd film, and despite all its faults, it most definitely does deserve its status as being an almost perfect film, and a great example of a modern-day masterpiece. The only problem is that this review is coming far too late, because I only got around to watching Drive recently, nearly six years after I should’ve watched it for the first time. It was worth the wait.
Taking on the legacy of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Ryan Gosling plays a mysterious and ethically dubious loner who makes a living driving. The unnamed driver (taking a cue from surrealist literature, and perhaps even a little bit from Fight Club), we never truly learn the character’s past, his identity or anything other than what is shown to us in the present. By day, the driver is a stunt-man and works in a mechanic’s garage. By night, he is a getaway driver. He undertakes a very personal mission, one that involves far too many people than the driver is usually comfortable with, and involves the process of falling in love, and nearly dying for that love. Drive has many twists and turns, and I didn’t expect any less from a film with this kind of talent behind the camera.
Let me be clear – when it comes to outright audacity as a filmmaker, Nicolas Winding Refn most surely stands ahead of the pack. Many of his films might be fatally flawed, but they are all unique creations, and one cannot ever deny that Refn makes a film that isn’t complex and a truly unparalleled experiences. Drive, in my honest opinion, is Refn’s finest work. Undeniably his most accessible and straightforward film, there is so much that Refn does here to create a film that isn’t anywhere close to being what we’d expect from a crime thriller in the 21st century – and much like all of Refn’s films, it seems to be displaced from time and space, and rather exists on a plane of its own, separate from the rest of cinema – comparing a Nicolas Winding Refn film to another film is a brutal task, not because they are necessarily much better, but because they are just so bizarre to be comparable to anything else (even if Refn owes so much of his career to the likes of Luis Buñuel, David Lynch and the subject of his ultimate infatuation, Alejandro Jodorowsky).
I always enjoy it when a film made in the modern day seems like it would fit more into a different era, because that means that the cast and crew have managed to tap into nostalgia and the cinematic conventions that made films of bygone eras so popular and fondly remembered (such as The Edge of Seventeen, the best 1980s John Hughes movie that wasn’t made by John Hughes and came out in 2016). Drive plays to the same 1980s nostalgia, but rather panders to the classic 1980s neo-noir thrillers that often went underseen in their day, but grew major followings in subsequent years – and Drive is a film that gets the aesthetic of the period so perfectly, and in its complexity becomes a truly unique experience that both serves as a touch of nostalgia and as a brilliant contemporary cinematic experience. Everything from the cinematography, to the music, to the general attitude of the film in its story and execution show clear influence from the 1980s, and rather uniquely, instead of being a homage to the era, serves as something that would fit in perfectly with the very films that inspired it. If there was any reason to doubt that Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the most visionary filmmakers working today, Drive should prove you wrong, and I know this because I was dubious about Drive‘s acclaim and Refn’s legacy until I actually watched it, and trust me, I was so glad to be proven utterly wrong.
Onto the cast – Ryan Gosling is quite effective as the mostly-silent, mysterious unnamed protagonist. I don’t know what it is about Gosling, but he frequently surprises me with the amount of great directors he chooses to work with. An actor with Gosling’s popularity could easily phone it in with low-brow comedies and broad action films, but he rather chooses effective projects that give his filmography its distinctly sophisticated appearance, and thus allows Gosling to have the edge as an actor. He plays against the rest of the cast perfectly, and seems to be more than proud to take a backseat to the rest of the cast, even if the rest of the cast does consist of Carey Mulligan, who is a great actress who unfortunately (much like Michelle Williams) struggles to make much of an impact outside of a select few towering performances, such as An Education in Mulligan’s case. Mulligan is very good, if not slightly underwritten, as Irene, the femme fatale of the film. It is a nuanced and precise performance, where Mulligan gives exactly what is required of her, which is a pleasant surprise considering that this role could’ve easily been a throwaway role. Mulligan gives it some life, which was delightful.
The rest of the cast is composed of a quartet of very talented actors, all of which have wonderful moments that contribute to this great film. Oscar Isaac, as Standard Gabriel, is brilliant in his brief performance. Watching this now is so lovely, considering how Isaac has gone on to become a highly demanded and very talented actor. Ron Perlman gives one of his more complex performances as Nino, a Jewish gangster, and its great to see Perlman in a role that actually allows him to shown some depth and have some dramatic moments, and to have a character that is developed further than his other roles, which usually just require Perlman to be menacing. The two best performances in this film come from the two biggest supporting roles – Bryan Cranston, as the kindhearted boss to Gosling’s character. Drive was made when Breaking Bad was in the peak of its popularity, and while I do think Cranston’s subsequent career has been questionable (he went from being one of television’s most exquisite leading men to a hammy actor in mediocre films) – Drive shows a very different side to Cranston, and I thought he was superb. Of course, as a comedy fan (and one particularly of The Simpsons), I will always have a soft spot for Albert Brooks, who turns in his most impressive performance as the brutal and unapologetic gangster Bernie Rose. Instead of playing him as a standard mob boss, Brooks actually creates a character that is both terrifying and sympathetic, and Brooks’ moments of outright terror are effectively juxtaposed in the moments where we see him in a more tender light, as a man feeling remorse for his actions. The supporting cast of Drive is just utterly superb.
Drive is a fantastic film, and right now, I’d place in in the Top 4 of the current century (right after There Will Be Blood, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Synecdoche, New York). It is a complex and very calculated film that is atmospheric to a fault, and has one of the best soundtracks in recent memory. The performances are outstanding, and the film itself is made beautifully. Drive isn’t only a great film – it is a film destined to be iconic and historically significant, and I truly believe that it is one of the greatest films ever made – it may be hyperbolic for one to say that, but if you don’t see this as a masterwork, then you clearly haven’t seen the same film I saw. Drive is a brilliant film, and I can’t wait to watch it again and unpack all of its complexities – and you know a film is great when the concept of watching it again very soon excites you. Most certainly a wonderful film.