Film Of The Year 2011: Drive

News Michael Leader
20 Dec 2011 - 14:46

In a year packed full of great movies, Drive emerged as our absolute favourite. Here’s Michael to explain why it’s Den Of Geek’s number one film of 2011...

Over the past few weeks, Den Of Geek writers have been voting for the films of the year. It's a democratic vote, which inevitably means that things end up in a slightly funny order that not one individual writer is likely to fully agree with. But it's still a fine list – and the victor undoubtedly deserves its place at the number one spot...

1st place:

Drive, Den Of Geek’s undisputed film of the year (getting more than double the votes of Black Swan in second place), was iconic before it was even released. The film’s reputation preceded it, thanks to a moody trailer, a hot-pink title font, and the casting of actor du jour Ryan Gosling in the lead role. All pointed towards a stylish, noirish thriller that oozed urban cool, and to say it delivered would be an absurd understatement. Everything, from the music to the performances, from the composition to the cinematography, seemed perfectly pitched.

Indeed, such are Drive’s strengths that its one flaw - which could be major, minor, or irrelevant depending on your viewpoint - is almost completely banished. The plot, adapted from a neo-noir paperback, and developed from an optioned Hollywood project originally set to star Hugh Jackman, is quite conventional, at times even rote. The nameless antihero falls for the wife of an ex-con, and through a sense of duty helps the husband clear his debt with a low-level crook. Unfortunately, the job is botched, and the ensuing bloodbath sees the protagonist slip further and further into moral ambiguity.

It’s not going to win any awards for its screenplay, but the themes are solid and the stock characters are timeless. Drive could as much be a Western as a noir; but it is in the execution that it all comes to life. Truly, this is a film for which awards for directing were made, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Best Director win at Cannes is well deserved. Throughout, there is a confidence in the direction, and a boldness in the filmmaker’s decisions.

Take, for example, the consistent stripping back of dialogue, often to the point where scenes are almost wordless. In the opening act, this is frequently astonishing, as the driver’s romance with his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), blossoms not over conversation, but through small moments: shared looks, smiles and murmurs. Refn exhibits patience, restraint, and, most of all, absolute faith in his actors, and both Gosling and Mulligan manage to evoke so much with such minimalistic performances.

And while there may be little in the way of narrative themes to pick apart, Drive poses a fascinating counterpoint to one of the great, long-standing questions in art: is it possible to succeed when style outweighs substance? Refn’s answer - to put it succinctly, but tritely - is to make style into its own substance. In this, he’s pitching his tent within a tradition that recently includes the much-maligned films of ‘visionary’ director Zack Snyder on the negative side, or the stylised work of erstwhile artists like Steve McQueen and Anton Corbijn on the other.

Like Corbijn’s last film, the ice-cold drama The American, Drive is a European spin on American genre, but where that film was leaden with visual metaphor and poetic pretensions, Refn’s film only expresses itself where it is absolutely necessary. Indeed, the film doesn’t excavate character ‘depth’ in the traditional way; instead it glides across the surface of the characters’ lives, slowly developing emotional resonance while maintaining its cool exterior.

The use of music is key. The film’s soundtrack is full of synthesised pop, Italo Disco-inflected tunes that, despite their over-aestheticised, slickly engineered and detached nature, sing about heroic lovers and late night heartache. They strive for beauty - a romantic, wistful atmosphere that stands in defiance to the robotic context.

The film is similar. Its stylistic mixture of classic gearhead flicks, crime tropes and a colour palette ripped right from 1980s MTV could seem calculated, or even vapid, but there’s a clever nuance to its atmosphere that sucks the audience right into its world.

Unlike scuzzier flicks, there's a futile chastity to its sexuality. The lovers hold hands, and only share a kiss as they realise their romance is doomed. In comparison, its flourishes of violence are shockingly blunt, carrying with them a sense of melancholy, and an irrevocable shift in the film’s tone. When the driver kills, there is no triumph, only sadness and grim determination, and there is no victory to be had in seeing off the bad guys. It's not like they're even that bad anyway: Ron Perlman's cackling don is a bitter, pathetic old man, and Albert Brooks, in a truly remarkable performance, brings a weariness to his ageing gangster. He’s at once warm and threatening - a beguiling combination which comes to a head in one utterly disarming scene towards the end of the film.

At the start of the year, when we spoke with Ryan Gosling about Blue Valentine, he described Drive - then an unknown quantity - as a "cross between Blue Velvet and Purple Rain". You can see his point, especially in the film’s aesthetic magic, its romantic heart, and the way its beauty has something a little unseemly under the surface. However, such a comparison short-changes the sheer bravura that is on display. Drive is a rare beast: a film full of art, which never becomes ‘arty’; an action thriller, where atmosphere and simmering tension trump explosive set pieces; an aesthetic powerhouse, which hinges on subtlety, silence, and restraint.

Both Refn and Gosling have had slow-burning, successful careers, but from here on out, our eyes are on them with even keener interest. After all, they did make 2011’s best film.

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