Better late than never... Manchester's lovely Cornerhouse cinema are re-running some of 2011's top films, giving laggards such as myself chance to catch up on films they should have seen earlier this year. So from the top - here's Drive...
Set in a contemporary Los Angeles and starring Ryan Gosling (I'm resisting the temptation to call it a vehicle...) as a nameless getaway driver/movie stuntman; a monosyllabic outlaw in the mould of Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood. Whilst also working for mobbed-up car mechanic Shannon (Bryan Cranston), he becomes entangled with neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her ne'er-do-well ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac), ultimately being drawn into a violent confrontations with a variety of goons in see-thru socks and local Jewish mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman).
So the story is pretty functional stuff, offering little more than, say, Fast Five; there is a built-in allowance for some reflection on the nature of criminality etc. but the moral universe is essentially that of a pessimistic Leone western - even the good guys are bad, redemption can only be found by way of the damsel (or child) in distress.
So what's so interesting about Drive? Well:
1. Direction & photography
Nicholas Winding Refn directs, Newton Thomas Sigel is cinematographer and together they've shot one of the most gorgeous movies of the year. For all the other excellent things about the film, it's fundamentally a movie striving for a specific tone, and as such it succeeds fabulously well. Bafflingly, Winding Refn has dedicated the film to Alejandro Jodorowsky - perhaps I'm missing something but Drive seems to me a million miles away from El Topo or The Holy Mountain. It is far closer to Stanley Kubrick or Brian De Palma, with a dash of Lynch for good measure, overlaid with textbook Michael Mann/Walter Hill subject matter. There is something Tarantino-ish in the fetishistic nostalgia, but it's far less knowing and still aspires to be a movie in its own right (compare and contrast with Quentin's own similar Death Proof),
Ryan Gosling (who I've previously been unconvinced by) is stellar here. He is involved in virtually every scene and carries off a performance that could otherwise have lurched into self-parody. Bryan Cranston also deserves special praise as the limping wrong-place-wrong-time grease monkey. Brooks and Perlman both fascinate and repulse as an interesting breed of wannabe paisano Jewish gangsters; Oscar Isaac gives a commendably complex performance beyond the Latino gangbanger stereotype. Oddly, the only slightly bum note was the usually-excellent Carey Mulligan, who never quite manages to entirely lose her upper-middle-classness, and is somewhat stranded as the film's moral centre. Christina Hendricks is also sadly underused (this is a very male film), though her few scenes are expertly delivered.
By which I'm talking about the stuff that isn't direction, photography or acting (or soundtrack, which is singled out below). The film has been smartly scripted (adapted form the 2005 novel by James Sallis) and edited; nothing is extraneous and is an almost-perfect length of 100 minutes. The production design is lush and lavish, almost Kubrickian, as are the costumes. The look and feel of the movie has been managed to a tee; yes, it's ludicrously perfect but that doesn't matter - this is a pulpy thriller no more of the real world we all inhabit than is Star Wars.
Los Angeles, such an evocative location for the movies, looks stunning. The night-time aerial shots (oddly reminiscent of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi) are gorgeous. I've always loved LA's sprawl and lack of cohesion; in some ways it's the quintessential American city, and Drive captures that everywhere-and-nowhere quality perfectly. LA is perfect setting for Drive not just as a dreamland, but also as the axiomatic car-city where even the river can be driven on, as in Repo Man, Grease, Terminator 2 and so many others. Of course, Drive is in some extraordinary filmic company that it can't quite live up to, lacking the oblique magnificence and stunning originality of a Mulholland Drive or a Sunset Boulevard, or the intelligence and emotional heart of a Chinatown or a LA Confidential, but it is still a worthy entry into the illustrious canon of great LA movies.
There have been some fabulous-sounding films this year, but only Melancholia of the films I've seen has been more effectively soundtracked than Drive. Moroder, Vangelis, Air and Goldfrapp all collide in a very French-sounding thumping synth-score, orchestrated by Cliff Martinez (and how's that for a classic LA name?); it is perfect for the film, somehow simultaneously sophisticated and superficial, and it's success amongst hipster douchebags everywhere as a standalone album release is no surprise.
So what about downsides? Well, that fairly exuberant praise should be tempered by an overarching criticism: this is not a particularly profound film; it's surface is all excellence but the core is Easter-egg hollow. It's an action thriller, and a stylish one, but don't be fooled into thinking that it's anything more than what it is. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course; as genre offerings go this is up there with The French Connection and Bullit (probably superior to the latter, in fact). Also, Winding Refn never quite lets go of the consciously retro production to enough of an extent for the audience to fully engage with the story or characters (though to be fair the film is so self-consciously stylised that this doesn't matter that much). Nonetheless, it is not quite the masterpiece that many of its approbators are proposing it to be.
A word of warning, too: this is a pretty violent film, and while us Cronenberg fans might be able to laugh off this kind of nasty, crunchy gore, it's not for everyone (compare, though, to Snowtown: a less graphic but more wince-inducing movie; this is comic-book head-stomping and not to be taken too seriously). A nasty little dark action flick is what this is, and while it doesn't quite deserve the across-the-board rave reception, it is a qualified and significant success, hugely entertaining and certainly one of the best films of 2011.