Those of us who live in the shadows, who sit back and let other people take the front seat and be extraordinary, can't really be faulted for enjoying that lifestyle. There's a certain comfort in being ordinary: much less risk of getting hurt or of running into trouble. But then there are times in life that something will happen to you or you'll meet someone, and you'll suddenly feel like maybe you're worth it, damn it, and you'll feel motivated to at least consider the possibility of shining brightly as a person and kicking ass. That motivation will usually be sparked by someone for whom you develop romantic feelings. Friends and family are nice, but let's face it, they usually just validate who you are as a person, and thus, they make you feel like it's okay to remain the way you are. But when you meet someone who awakens unknown passions in you, that event by itself is usually powerful enough to make you want to get out of the shadows and actually do something that matters with your life.
Driver (Ryan Gosling) is known only as "Driver" because he's as secondary a person as one can be. He doesn't have primary billing in any aspect of anything he does in his life. His various jobs include working as a stuntman for films, as an employee at an auto shop, and as the driver who is in charge of picking up people who have just committed heists and of taking them to designated locations. When he meets his new neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), she asks him whether he recently moved to LA, and he says "No, I've lived here for a while," though, of course, nobody has noticed it, because he's just another scattered shadow in a city filled with a bunch of people who are much more important than he is. But Irene does something to our protagonist. No, there's nothing sexual going on here. It's more like Driver develops a protective instinct over Irene and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). These two people finally give Driver something worth caring about.
Of course, when we find out that Irene is married and that her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is about to get out of prison, it's easy to start making predictions as to where this will go: "Oh, the husband's getting out of jail, so he's probably gonna be a real badass, and he's gonna start wondering if Driver's been screwing his wife, and he's gonna get all pissed off, and then it's gonna be an awesome love triangle, and then Driver is gonna kick the husband's ass and get the girl in the end." All wrong predictions, because Drive isn't the least bit interested in conventionality. Our main character continues to be driven by the desire to protect Irene and her family, so when he finds out that Standard needs to carry out a heist in order to pay off some favors that were done to him in jail, Driver is more than willing to oblige in helping Standard. Everything that happens in Drive from that point forward is completely unexpected. The discovery that Driver makes is one that Hollywood films constantly refuse to let their characters make: that being a hero and fighting for something or someone you care about is an often frustrating, heartbreaking and downright dangerous endeavor. Driver gets a rude awakening in discovering that taking center stage isn't quite as glorious as those movies he stunts for make it out to be.
Here's the shocking thing about Drive. Very little actually happens in the film. In fact, I basically told you what happens in the entire film in the above two paragraphs. "Wait, so you spoiled everything?" No, not really. Because Drive isn't so much about the events that happen during it as it is about the atmosphere that permeates throughout every scene. I didn't watch Drive - I experienced it. It has been a long time since I haven't looked at my watch once while viewing a film in the theater, and the fact that Drive, a movie with so many quiet and somber moments, managed to do that is a testament to the expertise with which it's been crafted. I was engrossed beyond belief. If you watch the movie and then watch the trailer right after, you'll realize that the trailer basically gives you a full narration of everything that happens in the movie... but it's not really spoiling anything, because it's impossible to spoil a film that works as tremendously well as it does thanks to the FEEL it has, and not to its events. Something extremely rare happens during the entirety of Drive's running time: the film is allowed to breathe. The pacing is perfect. Those quiet and somber moments are being derided as boring by impatient people, but my eyes were glued to the screen during them.
Consider a scene that takes place in an elevator occupied by Driver, Irene and a likely villain. If you've seen the trailer, you know exactly what happens during the scene: you know that Driver and Irene share a quick kiss, and that Driver then starts fighting the guy. But if you don't watch the movie, you won't be able to experience it at the pace that you're meant to experience it. The scene is a beauty. Before the kiss even occurs, the camera emphasizes the white lighting in the elevator in order to give the moment an angelic aura (because angelic is exactly what Irene is, as played by Carey Mulligan and as captured by the camera). The relationship between Driver and Irene is of the innocent variety because, like I said, the film concerns itself more with the fact that Irene is an emotional catalyst for Driver, rather than with any romantic or sexual details. The fact that this is conveyed so perfectly by the white lighting and by the briefness of the kiss is, in short, mesmerizing. The intensity of the white light wanes as soon as Driver switches to fighting mode, as he continues descending into the unexpectedly dark depths that one encounters when trying to be a hero for real.
Indeed, despite the impression you may get from my description of the ethereal elevator kiss, Drive is an incredibly dark motion picture. The violence and gore are quite graphic. Since some of the marketing for Drive is making deceptive use of Ryan Gosling's sex appeal, part of me wonders what the response of women who go see the film exclusively for the actor's looks will think during a scene in which he menacingly stands over a female character with his fist ready to strike, demanding information. I thought the moment was gloriously well-played, but wouldn't be surprised if people with different expectations were offended by this, or by the truly awesome, um, blood-spurting implosion that takes place in the bathroom a few seconds later.
Offended or disappointed as someone may be by this, the reality is that Gosling's sex appeal has absolutely nothing to do with anything that Drive wishes to accomplish through the actor's rendition of the reticent protagonist. Impressive as his work was in the likes of Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl and last year's Blue Valentine, what he does with Driver is an entirely different animal. Gosling communicates a million things during a scene despite having little to no dialogue to help him say them. In the early scenes during which he begins interacting with Irene and Benicio, there's clear evidence in the look in his eyes and in his half-smiles that something new has sparked within him. Later on, Driver is telling someone to shut his mouth, in one of those moments that could've easily felt straight out of a hammy scene starring Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Statham... except that the look on Gosling's face is so haunting and diabolical (like nothing I've seen the actor do before) that it's impossible to put him in the same league as those other two. That's because Drive isn't interested in making a wooden action figure out of its lead character. Those of you who want that can go look elsewhere. I prefer broken characters whose demons aren't afraid to come out, and I give Drive and Gosling high praise for providing that. Carey Mulligan also deserves her share of acclaim for being so effective at capturing the purity of Irene, and for forming the base for the refreshingly tame and innocent bond that forms between her and Driver.
The technical aspects of Drive are handled masterfully. As far as cinematography is concerned, Drive actually reminds me of this year's earlier Last Night, in terms of the hypnotic effect achieved by the camera in how it captures nighttime city exteriors (although the two films couldn't be more different as far as plot and amount of dialogue are concerned). Drive does with Los Angeles what Last Night did with New York, which is taking a city that has been used, abused and whored out in dozens of mainstream motion pictures and giving it a completely different feel. In both films, I felt as if I was transported somewhere entirely different than the Los Angeles and New York I'm used to seeing. I felt as if in a trance-like, engrossing daze. I dare say that the atmosphere and soundtrack in Drive are characters all on their own, considering how strongly they both resonated with me throughout the film. There's a piece of editing towards the end that borders on brilliance, as two characters are sitting across from each other at a restaurant table and the film suddenly starts inter-cutting between their reactions to one another and the events that would take place a few minutes later (and Gosling is way at the top of his acting game during this entire sequence).
I don't want to say this, because I wish it weren't true. But Drive doesn't belong in multiplexes. It belongs in arthouses. It belongs in a place in which the majority of audience members actually realize that the reason why the titular verb isn't something we see much of during the film is due to the fact that the title also refers to the drive that overtakes the main character as soon as Irene and Benicio enter his life. When I say that the film belongs in arthouses, I'm not being pretentious - I'm being realistic. Truth be told, if Drive had been released only in arthouses, it may have been months before I had the chance to see it, so on a strictly personal level, I'm certainly GLAD it was more accessible. The problem is that releasing Drive in multiplexes leads to the dispiriting consequence that we've already seen happen. The movie disappoints people because it isn't what the masses expected, because they feel like "nothing happens in it," because the masses can't get beyond the fact that movies can be about a lot more than just the things that physically happen during them. This ridiculously conformist desire to always get "exactly what one expects" from a movie, and for the reaction to ALWAYS be negative when one doesn't get that, is exactly what has led Hollywood to go on a spree of remakes, reboots and sequels: "Hey, if we do something that people are already familiar with, they'll know EXACTLY what they're getting." I can understand being surprised because a film didn't turn out to be what you thought it was, but I can't understand the automatic dismissiveness towards the film solely because of that, and I certainly can't understand the inability to get past the surface of films by focusing only on what happens during them rather than also allowing yourself to be enthralled by what it has to say. The fact that Driver's fate is left unresolved shouldn't be cause for dissatisfaction. It's the type of ending that leaves room for interpretation, which hopefully means that when you walk out of the theater, the discussion you'll have with the person who saw it with you won't be limited to 10 seconds of talking about the coolness of that scene in which a character's head was blown to pieces.
I don't believe that there will be any Oscar nominations for Drive. The Academy tends to go for two types of film: (1) movies that have been liked/loved by critics and absolutely loved by audiences of all ages, races and social groups (such as the undeserving The Blind Side two years ago, and the slightly-better-but-still-undeserving The Help this year), and (2) movies that, despite dividing critics and not scoring with audiences, resonate deeply with subjects that Academy members care about and can relate to (such as A Serious Man two years ago, and definitely The Tree of Life this year). Drive doesn't fall into either of those two categories. The box office returns were predictably dismal, and it's only September, which means it will have faded from most people's minds come the end of the year. (Oh, and Gosling is eminently nominatable, but he's already been snubbed in past years, and he's got two other films this year.) Forgotten as though Drive may be at the end of December, it'll be impossible for this thoroughly hypnotizing work of cinema to have faded from my memory that quickly. Drive is a beautiful, glorious exercise in style and atmosphere, and its audacity in exposing the disheartening truth about what can really happen when one is suddenly driven to fight for something one cares about is deserving of the highest of accolades.