LAFF 2011: Refn's DRIVE is the No Nonsense Action Film You've Been Waiting For
One thing was made ridiculously clear at LA Film Fest's North American premiere of Nicolas Refn's Cannes hit Drive last night: We have a serious talent on our hands. For many accomplished ScreenAnarchy readers this might seem pretty obvious. We've loved his work from the Pusher Trilogy through Bronson and Valhalla Rising. But for most American audiences, this new Danish kid is about to invade your multiplexes and start kicking ass.
Drive is Refn's first plunge into American cinema and cannonballs right in with a crime thriller set smack in the heart of Los Angeles. Ryan Gosling stars as our nameless hero whose back story is as veiled as his driving skills are honed. Bryan Cranston turns in another shockingly good performance as the gimp legged Shannon, our hero's mentor and boss who helps find the kid work both as a stunt driver in the pictures and as a wheelman for some small time heists. Things heat up when our boy meets the girl next door and forms an instant connection with her and her young son (and who wouldn't fall for the pretty girl with the quiet hint of sorrow so beautifully inferred by Carey Mulligan). When trouble comes knocking on the neighbor's door, we know just as sure as shit that it's going to be our hero's job to stomp it down with the cold heel of steel driving boots.
It is pretty obvious from the moment the opening credits roll that we are in for an action movie unlike anything we've seen in a long while. The vibrant violet cursive titles over the LA skyline with the pounding European electronica evoke 80s crime actioners like To Live and Die in LA (which likely holds up better in our memories than our old VHS copies). The slow burn narrative harkens back to 70s crime classics like The French Connection while Gosling's cool demeanor is all Steve McQueen in Bullitt. But while Refn draws heavily on many great films, the resulting product is very much his own and bears no burden of the trap of nostalgia.
Much credit should be paid to screenwriter Hossein Amini and novelist James Sallis for the beautiful simplicity of the crime plot. Far too often we've seen stories muddled down by over complication or ruined by implausibility. Here the details just make sense without any extra nonsense.
No nonsense is the very definition of Gosling's performance as well. We've seen him play the silent introspective type in just about all of his roles - but never before has his character so demanded that ethos. If there is any complaint to be made it's that Gosling's cold eyes hide just a bit too much of what is going on with his emotions. What events of his past make him so readily turn to violence aren't even slightly hinted at and some clue as to his motivations and inner struggles could have made for a more rounded experience. However it's very likely that these characterizations were left out by design as the writers did an excellent job of making compelling characters out of Cranston's role as well as bad guys played by Ron Perlman and the particularly dynamic portrayal by Albert Brooks.
Some final words of praise need to be saved for the exceptional sound design and music. Refn is nothing else if not a master of detail and these elements add just as much to the film as the impressive cinematography and razor sharp editing.
Nicolas Refn told a story in his pre-screening introduction about a tip he was given by a wise European filmmaker about making the jump to Hollywood: If you just smile and nod and say no problem, you're going to get to make the movie you want. Action film fans rejoice. There is a new kid in Hollywood and he didn't come here to compromise. Just keep smiling and nodding buddy. Everyone should see Drive when it hits theaters in the US on September 16th.