The Best Film of 2011
The following review is largely taken from my cinema review of Drive, now combined with an in-depth cross-comparison between the two recent releases in the US and UK.
“Have you heard the story about the scorpion and the frog?”
If I can impart upon you just one thing, it’s that you simply have to see this movie. The Oscars may have snubbed it, but it is, nonetheless, one of the best movies of 2011 and certainly my personal favourite movie of the year.
2011 was, as everybody has been discussing recently, a terrible year for movies, with only a few true gems that emerged, including Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and the modern classic Gary Oldman spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Both of these films, whilst arguably required viewing, have had some mixed press in amidst the high praise – and obviously some people just didn’t enjoy them as much as others. I can’t blame them: these are unique productions which neither cater for the ADD generation, nor pander to audience expectations: Tree of Life largely eschews anything one would normally describe as plot, in favour of breathtaking imagery and stunning emotional snapshots, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is like watching an elaborate chess game be played out by two old masters – certainly something which is not to everybody’s tastes.
Infinitely more accessible – it has a relatively straightforward plot, even if it is far from predictable – and yet just as atmospherically moody, strikingly unusual and, frankly, simply amazing, Drive adopts cool retro beats and superior stylisation to create an ultra-modern film noir that comes packed with rich characters, nuanced performances and memorable dialogue. In fact I strongly recommend you drop the review, avoid the trailer, and just go and buy it.
Still here? I guess I had better do a better job of convincing you.
“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.”
The story follows a nameless stunt driver who performs the more dangerous driving scenes in movies, also working in a garage as a mechanic, whilst moonlighting as a getaway driver at night. A consummate professional, he is the best at what he does, and he keeps his life very simple so that he may continue doing it. A simple gesture of kindness towards a young mother living in his apartment block leads him down an unforeseeably dangerous path, however, as her husband is released from prison and, with his life and the lives of his family under threat, coerced into doing an ostensibly simple heist – the driver’s vested interest in the young mother and son compelling him to offer up his skills, and subsequently embroiling him in a deadly turn of events which threaten to derail his entire life and take away from him anybody he ever cared about.
“I know a lot of guys who mess around with married women, but you're the only one I know who robs a place to pay back the husband.”
As the production logos fade and the opening credits start playing out a light beat starts thrumming over the speakers; the pulse reminiscent of a heartbeat. We are introduced to the driver. He picks up a couple of robbers who get the briefest, to-the-point explanation of exactly what he will do for them. Almost nothing else is said during the opening sequence, but the driver is not monosyllabic; he just doesn’t speak when it is not necessary, choosing his words very carefully when it is. His police scanner chatters lightly as he listens to a sports game over the radio, and when the cops zero in, he immediately drops into a line of parked cars and kills his lights. Biding his time, he only pushes his pedal to the floor when absolutely necessary, but, when he does, nobody can keep up with him. After completing the job he walks away, blending into the crowd, and returning to his own car, before cruising off into the night as an Eighties-inspired electronically-dominated track, that sounds like something Daft Punk might come up with, plays out in the background.
Drive is effortlessly stylish, an atmospheric modern film noir which is distinctly fresh and original in an era where gritty handheld use, fast editing and big events are the name of the game. It takes us back to the 80s – but not the cheesy, dated, hollow pop tunes and bad fashion side of that neon-dominated, garish decade; instead focussing on the dark streets and haunting electronic melodies, where iconic nameless heroes prowl the night with their own moral code, and their own driving purpose.
Although it would be easy to draw the obvious parallels with Walter Hill’s highly underrated 1978 thriller, The Driver, which starred Ryan O’Neal, in a role originally envisioned for Steve McQueen, playing a nameless getaway driver who barely says a word, and undertakes a deadly job that sees both cops and robbers out to get him; as well as McQueen’s own Bullitt, an atmospheric cop thriller featuring one of the greatest car chases of all time, which director Nicolas Winding Refn has openly acknowledged as being an inspiration for this piece, but, if anything, this movie feels like something Michael Mann might have directed in the eighties – all about colours and tones, perfectly framed shots, heavy stylisation, striking visuals and diegetic electric beats, rich in symbolism and carrying a palpable atmospheric energy. Manhunter nails the comparison in terms of style, but his earlier Thief also has the added similarities of both plot and of the lead character.
“You put this kid behind the wheels; there is nothing he can't do.”
Mann is obsessed with the driven hero (or anti-hero), who is simply the best at what he does, but who has to stay focussed on doing it in order to survive; an attempt to follow a different path often leading to his own destruction. Whether it be the professional thieves in Thief or Heat, the trio of expert hunters in Last of the Mohicans, the undercover cops in Miami Vice, or even Muhammed Ali himself in Mann’s biopic, these characters are always undone by the ill-advised attachments that they have – it’s their weakness. As De Niro says in Mann’s crime epic masterpiece Heat, “don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” It may not be a good rule to live your life by, but it applies to the many of Mann’s lead characters, and to their fate as well. We have the same sentiment apparent when it comes to Drive’s lead character: here we get an unbeatable driver, the best at what he does, who lives his life by a strict code of conduct, and who is not ‘lonely’ but is ‘alone’, and yet his first attempt at vague social contact – helping a neighbour out when her car won’t start – has disastrous consequences.
Ryan Gosling plays the unnamed driver in this movie. Back when Clooney kick-started his film career, we got a shotgun-blast of disparate productions, almost as if he wanted to show that he could do good in any genre, whether it be romantic comedy (One Fine Day), cool, witty horror-thriller (From Dusk Till Dawn), straight action-thriller (The Peacemaker) or even cheesy superhero blockbuster (Batman & Robin), and it feels like Gosling, who has been around in the business for years, but has never really broken through into the mainstream, is finally attempting much the same manoeuvre. He did a commercially successful and genuinely good romantic drama, The Notebook, back in 2004, and since then has provided consistently good performances across the last 7 years, mainly in independent films like Half Nelson (for which he was Nominated for an Oscar) and last year’s outstanding anti-romance, Blue Valentine. But he’s never been an A-list actor. Until now. 2011 sees him star in a trilogy of starkly different productions: the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love with Steve Carell; the political thriller The Ides of March with George Clooney; and this film, a noir-ish action-thriller. It’s a great move, and, on his performance in Drive alone, he deserves all the choice titles he will hopefully get in the future. As stated, his character is low on conversation, getting straight to the point; his thoughts often conveyed through the lyrics of the music that he is listening to (“I don’t eat; I don’t sleep; I do nothing but think of you” and “you have proved to be... a real human being, and a real hero.”) or by his gestures – the clenching of his leather-gloved-fists heightening the tension no end – his expressions and occasional, but genuine, smiles.
Yet he is far from the shallow one-dimensional image of a cool protagonist, his character rich and multi-layered, the depth to which you do not initially realise, but, through horrific revelations, you grow to fully understand. It’s the kind of reserved, restrained performance that reminds you of Marlon Brando (Apocalypse Now) during his heyday. Some regard it as frustratingly aloof but, look beneath the service, and Gosling’s character is seething with pent-up emotions.
At one point the nameless driver references the fable of the frog and the scorpion – for those who don’t remember it from childhood, it’s the tale of the scorpion who asks the frog to carry him on his back across the river; the frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion assures him that this will not happen, as if he does sting him, he himself will drown; but halfway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, and when asked why since he knows that it seals both their fates, the scorpion replies that he cannot help it, it is in his nature. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to simply portray Gosling’s driver to be the frog in the tale, literally carrying scorpions around on his back (i.e. criminals in his car) – it being in their nature to betray and hurt him – and this would have been more than enough weighty symbolism for one film; but Drive takes it one step further, further introducing the actual image of the Scorpio Rising, which is imprinted on back of the driver’s jacket. Now, on one level this further emphasises that the driver is the frog, carrying the scorpion, literally, on his back, but, looking a little deeper, the tale of Scorpio Rising is of a character who denies his true nature, until it is fully revealed – here Gosling’s ‘hero’ has been ‘playing’ the frog for quite some time, but, when his back is against the wall, he reveals his true nature – he reveals himself to be a scorpion too (the elevator sequence, where he finally shows his true nature to the girl he loves is a perfect example, stunningly shot, hauntingly beautiful, a moment of true romance juxtaposed with inevitable, yet still shockingly horrific violence). It is fantastic symbolism, perfectly integrated into a thoroughly compelling character and his tragic story arc.
“How about this - shut your mouth or I'll kick your teeth down your throat and I'll shut it for you.”
Supporting him we get a whole host of familiar faces, many of whom play distinctly against type, and only to the betterment of the production. Never Let Me Go’s Carey Mulligan is cast in the role of the young mother and love interest – originally written as a latino character – and brings just the right amount of torn loyalty, living-in-the-moment, and fairytale dreaming to the part; Oscar Issac, usually perfect for more villainous roles – Robin Hood and Sucker Punch – is great as the ex-convict husband who actually just wants to do right by his family; Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as the driver’s garage boss, mentor and the closest thing he has to a friend (and perhaps the true symbolic frog of the fable); Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks ostensibly slums-it in a role which was originally envisioned to be played by a porn actress (but they couldn’t find one who could act!), and the only thing regrettable about her part is that it just wasn’t big enough; and actor/director Albert Brooks (Out of Sight), who is normally cast as a weak or comedic character, gets to be the more overt scorpion of the piece, a seemingly simple businessman whose own admission that ‘his hands aren’t clean’ merely hints at the violence that brews beneath the suit. In fact it’s only Ron Perlman (Enemy At The Gates), the movie’s biggest name and most familiar face – Hellboy himself – who comes across as a bit of a weak link, his Jewish thug who wants to be an Irish gangster verging on caricature more than once; but even this slight lapse is saved, and will likely go unnoticed under the weight of the otherwise generally great contributions.
Based on a 2005 crime novel of the same name, written by James Sallis, Drive was originally intended to be a big-budget blockbuster – a starring vehicle for Hugh ‘Wolverine’ Jackson no less – to be directed by The Descent’s Neil Marshall. Unfortunately, all the inherent blockbuster pressures and prejudices have affected both Jackson’s and Marshall’s work, with the former doing stuff like the upcoming Real Steel (an abortive attempt at adapting the classic Twilight Zone story) and the latter giving us films like the truly awful Doomsday. It is something of a miracle that Drive ended up in the hands of the director behind the biopic Bronson, starring Tom Hardy (Warrior), and with the lead actor from Blue Valentine – it would be horrible to think of it ruined by Studio manipulation and over-the-top stunt sequences (although a little more money may have afforded them one more chase scene).
Refn keeps things real and low-key, often shooting from inside the vehicles; capturing precision driving, some of which was done by Gosling himself, and finely balancing evocative stylish mood shots with outbursts of unprecedented violence (he approached Gasper ‘Irreversible’ Noe to get advice on how to do the violence – just so you know what to expect; the bursts of pure horror reminiscent of the moments peppered throughout Cronenberg’s A History of Violence). It is shot to perfection, steeped in imagery and bathed in a sweeping, emotionally tangible torrent of pulses and beats, modern yet 80s-styled electro-pop enhancing the experience in much the same way that Daft Punk did on Tron: Legacy and The Chemical Brothers did for Hanna. This is a soundtrack that you will pick up immediately after watching the movie.
Drive is a magnificent indie production, a low-key b-movie framework made highly original by unexpected plot deviation, unusual characterisation, powerhouse performances, breathtaking visual energy, a stunningly well-chosen soundtrack, deep symbolism, rich imagery and an effortlessly cool style. If I haven’t convinced you that you simply must see this movie, then nothing will. Drive was undoubtedly the best films of 2011, and is surely destined to be a modern classic.