PINNACLE FILMS: Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s high-octane neo-noir thriller is our pick as the film of the year.
Many filmmakers made their names pursuing a single genre, with crime one of the most common. Like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino before him, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s early works were immersed in the underworld: the acclaimed Pusher trilogy and powerful prison biopic, Bronson. The visceral, psychological examination of illegality has become his calling card, evidenced over eight features to date. In Drive, the accomplished auteur reaffirms his mastery of criminal enterprise, in a nuanced neo-noir homage to his genre inspirations.

Ask the Driver (Ryan Gosling, Crazy, Stupid, Love) about his work, and the answer is simple: he drives, as a stuntman by day and get-away driver by night. His employer (Bryan Cranston, Contagion) aims to add racing to the Driver’s resume, seeking finance from a local mobster (Albert Brooks, The In-Laws) for a legitimate venture. When Driver befriends his neighbour (Carey Mulligan, Never Let Me Go) and her young son (debutant Kaden Leos), his chivalry encompasses assisting her ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac, Balibo) in settling a prison debt. Their actions inflame mafia tensions, with the escalating conflict encroaching upon Driver’s personal and professional dealings.

From the pulsating electro-pop soundtrack that accompanies the feature from the outset, to the striking austerity of the Cannes Film Festival-winning direction that lingers until the final shot, Drive is one of 2011’s most stylish efforts. Indeed, every aspect of the feature is crafted to mirror the cool, calm and collected façade of its quiet yet charismatic lead character, with Refn carefully cultivating an aesthetic that matches the calculating protagonist.

However, Drive boasts insight and intelligence as well as artistry, with substance lurking beneath the sophisticated exterior and ultra-violent incidents. Although Oscar-nominated screenwriter Hossein Amini’s (The Wings of the Dove) adaptation of James Sallis’ novel retains the slightness of story, the film unravels as an intense exploration of the outcome of selfish and selfless acts, aligned with the crime paradigm.

Of course, the cast are as crucial as the construction and content, including smouldering leading man Gosling at his economical, understated best. Whilst Mulligan appears subdued, their chemistry is anything but, with sparks flying amidst Brooks’ scene-stealing menace, Cranston’s kindly charm, and Isaacs’ desperate suspicion. In combination with the small but pivotal efforts of Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks, the outstanding actors ensure the feature is a smart yet savage affair. Precise, potent and poignant, Drive is unparalleled as the film of 2011.

Rating: Five stars

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston
U.S., 2011, 100 min

In cinemas Thursday 27th October
Distributed by Pinnacle Films
Rated MA

Sarah Ward

Monday 24 October, 2011

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay