I’m calling an audible on my own Best of 2011 list. Having seen most of the films on my list now more than once, I would really like to toss out my entire list and just leave a floating cluster of films that shift from two to five to ten back to one, depending on my mood. That’s how arbitrary top ten lists are, and it’s why I won’t do anymore. Because now, there is no doubt in my mind what the best, most original, most complete film was in 2011. The Oscars don’t really matter in this case because they aren’t necessarily out to crown the best film, just one of the better films of the year while filling out their list with enough crowd pleasers to draw in an audience for the ceremony. But that is a rant for another day. I say all of this to say Drive is the best film of 2011, with or without any statues to show for itself.
I put Midnight in Paris atop my Best of 2011 list, followed by The Tree of Life, Shame, and Drive in that order. These are all wonderful films, and The Tree of Life might be the best, but I don’t think it’s the most complete. It is a spectacular and organic film, but one with flaws, and it struggles with its bookend structure. Shame is a film with great performances, but nothing I would watch more than once or twice in a blue moon. Midnight in Paris is delightful, no doubt, and I have a hard time putting a movie in front of Woody Allen’s cheery, whimsical salute to nostalgia. But there is no denying Drive anymore. Virtually shut out at the Oscars, Drive is clearly the kind of film Oscar is afraid of, something borderless, something not easily categorized. Seeing it again at home, and having the immediate desire to see it again, I am convinced of Drive’s greatness. I want to highlight a few reasons for my change of heart. I could truly break down the picture scene by scene, and I fully intend to do this in the future. But here, for the sake of time and sanity, let’s just examine a few central reasons.
THE OPENING SEQUENCE
There has not been a better opening scene in a film this year. We meet the driver and we hear him explain his modus operandi: “You have me for five minutes,” explains Ryan Golsing’s driver. “A minute before or after, and you’re on your own. Anything that happens in those five minutes, and I’m yours.” This direct, no-nonsense approach sends us right into the job, a nighttime robbery in downtown LA. The tension of the robbery is enough, but set against the time constraints and the pulsating techno of The Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock,” every movement is amplified. The techno-pop score serves almost as the heartbeat of the film itself. Once the two masked men get in the car, the driver must navigate through downtown against the pursuit of police cars and helicopters. The driver operates like a magician, staying one step ahead of the pursuit at every turn, pulling off deft maneuvers to evade the spotlight of the police.
This opening scene is vital to the success of the film. It is seamlessly stripped of any excess, unfolding as efficiently as a Swiss watch. It is the lean hook to the song of the movie; it pulls us into the driver’s world in the most exhilarating way imaginable. Once the driver leaves the men in a crowded parking garage and disappears into the city streets, we get a title sequence to rival this opening scene. Against another synth-pop song, “Nightcall,” Nicholas Winding Refn’s camera floats over the Los Angeles skyline, lit up and more engrossing than anything Michael Mann has ever done. It is a hypnotic rabbit hole of an opening title sequence, where we fall into the very small universe of the driver.
THE PERFECT HERO
We never learn very much about the driver, not even a first name. But Gosling’s portrayal is absorbing despite the fact. There is no history, no past or future for the driver, only the present. He is an immediate presence in the film, and this immediacy keeps us engaged. What is he thinking? We don’t know, we never fully now, but there are times or inflection in Gosling’s features which may hint at something dark. And of course there are the eerily efficient outbursts of violence from the driver as he protects Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son; the driver is hiding from his past, and we don’t need to know any details about the things he might be hiding from.
The characterization of the driver strips him bare of any baggage or narrative to cloud judgment or motivation. He lives to drive, barely stopping in his apartment to drop off bags and get back in his car. This is his only noticeable motivation, and by doing nothing more than show him behind the wheel of the car, Refn allows a layer to develop just beneath the surface of the character. He lives to drive, and anyone like this is absolutely running from his own life. It is just the right amount of layering. Without his own motives – he lives alone, has no family or real friends, and is simply compelled to watch over Irene – the driver exists as a catalyst for the story at hand. Nothing more or less. It makes him the perfect hero.
THE CALM… AND THE STORM
It should honestly be called “The Calms before the Storms,” as Refn has a firm understanding of the power of a quiet, introspective scene. Sometimes crime dramas are all about the action, and that might be the wrong approach. Think about the great crime dramas of the past and they way they function. Michael Mann’s Heat is a great example of a tense drama unfolding while taking the time to calm down and simply observe. Too much action can sometimes numb the sensory output of a film, and Drive understands the dangers of unrelenting violence. But these peaceful interludes in Drive are altogether unique, invoking mood and emotion more than focusing on any sort of character development. They are sometimes dreamlike, as is the case with Irene, her son, and the driver touring the canals and stopping by a creek. The introduction of something so natural in a concrete jungle like Los Angeles settles the picture with a calm that mirrors the rolling waters of the creek.
These moments are strategically placed among the chaotic moments of the film, where sudden outbursts of violence come fast and relentlessly. The double-crossing at the Pawn Shop leads to the central set piece of the film, one of the strongest and most intense car chases I can remember. This makes anything in the Fast and Furious films look as ridiculous as they are. You can feel the energy of these engines and every impact means something. The chase is brief, but breathtaking, like most of the action sequences.
The attack in the elevator and the various scenes where a character is attacked or killed all function on the same level of intensity. The driver is capable of sudden and brutal violence, a defense mechanism of a man hiding his past. The outbursts we understand, but what we never figure out is how and why the driver is capable of such violence. It adds mystery, and forces us to contemplate our hero on more than a surface level.
* I could go on and on about the wonderful seamless structure and brilliance of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, and I intend on dissecting the picture at great length one of these days. This picture captivates me on so many different levels. It is not a film for Oscar’s Best Picture, but rarely is the very best film of the year crowned as such at the Academy Awards. Something daring and new is not the forte of the Academy. And that is fine. It won’t need accolades when all is said and done; it will be able to rest firmly in the knowledge that it is a film unlike any other.