Drive (****)

Many of the best characters in movie history lived (and sometimes died) by a code.  The idea of the character driven by a moral standing is an old one in Hollywood, but one that maybe hasn’t received the attention of late that it deserves.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling have changed that with the incredible film that is ‘Drive’.  It’s far more a character study than a “car” or action movie (and I can make the case that it’s actually in many ways a superhero original story of sorts), though those looking for an adrenaline rush will surely get it each time Driver erupts in violence.  The film is absolutely beautiful, both in its quiet moments and in the times when blood is shed.  I don’t know that I’ve seen a more complete and satisfying film yet in 2011.  Refn easily does the best directing work of his career and the year, and with an iconic turn by Gosling and award worthy supporting performances by Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston, not to mention a subtle but moving job by Carey Mulligan, this flick is something truly special.  It may even be the best film of the year.

Driver (Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt man and mechanic by day.  Sometimes at night though, he puts in work as a wheelman for various thugs.  He’s got a specific set of rules that need to be followed if you want his help, encompassing the way he lives his life.  To quote him: “If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun… I drive.”  This is the way that he lives his life, calling no one a friend but perhaps his mentor Shannon (Cranston).  This changes when he meets his new neighbor Irene (Mulligan).  She and her young son appeal to him and they begin to bond.  Things are going nicely for him, with Shannon looking to set him up as a racer using the backing of crime boss Bernie Rose (Brooks), but then Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Issac) gets out of prison.  He’s roughed up by some goons who want him to do a job, and as a favor Driver offers to be the wheelman.  Things go all wrong, however, and Driver is forced to break his code in order to assure those he cares about will be protected.  The story may sound generic, and to a degree it is, but it’s beauty is in the style with which its presented.  And boy oh boy, is there style to spare.

 While Ryan Gosling was better in ‘Blue Valentine’ and ‘Half Nelson’, this performance is still one of his very best.  When I call it an iconic role, I mean that.  He’s taken a part that Steve McQueen would have done once upon a time.  Gosling both honors that tradition and makes the role completely his own.  Driver is quiet, saying maybe a few dozen sentences the whole film.  He speaks softly, but when it comes down to it, he carries a very big stick.  Gosling is having an amazing year, and he more than deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance.  Also deserving a nod (and likely being on his way to one) is Albert Brooks, who does something unlike anything you’ve seen before from him.  He’s a badass villain, but he’s got loads of humanity and more than a bit of pathos.  It’s a far more complicated character than you’d expect.  He’s outstanding and may even be in line to win Best Supporting Actor this year.  Also turning heads in this flick is Bryan Cranston as the mentor without any luck and Carey Mulligan as the first real connection for Driver in some time.  They all rule the screen and deserve awards consideration.  There’s also excellent support in smaller parts by Ron Perlman (doing his best work in some time) as Bernie’s more aggressive associate and Christina Hendricks as one of the occupants of Driver’s car on a heist.  Everyone pulls their weight, but the heavy praise has to go to Gosling and Brooks, who both will blow your mind.

I’ll confess to not being a big fan of Nicolas Winding Refn previously.  I more appreciate than like his work.  Both ‘Bronson’ and ‘Valhalla Rising’ had big flaws to me, but I can’t deny his talent as a director.  Here, he harnesses that talent and turns in a masterpiece.  He expertly uses music, slow motion, and shocking violence to tell a story in a brilliant way.  This is some of the finest direction I’ve seen in the last few years.  It’d be a crime to exclude him from the Best Director conversation.  The script by Hossein Amini (based off of the James Sallis book of the same name) takes some liberties in adapting the story, but it’s all for the better.  Each character is three dimensional and the plot is well paced and not overly complicated.  It’s a high quality writing job, just like everything else in the flick.

The film deserves Oscar consideration in a whole host of categories.  I see Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (for both Brooks and Cranston), Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Original Score as all being in play, though many are mostly pipe dreams on my part.  I think Brooks is a lock, with Picture, Director, Actor, and a tech nod or two being realistic.  It all depends on how the Academy sees this film.  It’s far from a genre film, but if one considers it that, it’s easily the best straight genre outing for awards consumption since ‘The Departed’, and we all know how that turned out.  Time will tell, but count me as a proponent of ‘Drive’ being very much in the Oscar conversation.

 ‘Drive’ is a masterpiece of visual stimuli while also featuring top notch acting and pleasing the viewer on every level.  It may take a few too many artistic liberties for the more conservative out there, but by and large it should be both a critical (which it already is) and commercial success.  I’m not sure I’ll see a better film this year, but if I don’t, I’ll be quite happy with this film as the class of 2011.  Make it your business to see this movie, as it’s something truly special.  I can’t recommend it enough.  Films like this don’t come around very often, so it’s important to see and enjoy them when you can.  ‘Drive’ gets my highest grade, so just see it!