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Driver drives. Most mornings he drives to work—to a garage where he's a mechanic. Some days he drives onto movie sets, working as a stunt man. And he'll be driving a stock car on the weekends if he tunes his carburetor just right.
Oh, and he also drives the getaway car for thieves who need a little extra horsepower. It's straight freelance for him: He doesn't carry a gun, doesn't take part in the robbery (he tells himself and others), and if the heist takes too long, he'll simply leave the crooks behind and drive away.
Why wouldn't he, after all? Driver drives.
But even the most avid driver can't permanently mind-meld with a straight eight. He's got to deal with people occasionally, and one day he elects to drive his pretty neighbor, Irene, and her little boy, Benicio, home from the grocery store. Before long, Driver's driving them other places too—sometimes to a sublime little creek bed, sometimes just around—and he discovers that life isn't isolated to fuel injectors and fan belts. He begins to long for a sense of companionship, even family.
Until Irene's husband, Standard, comes back from prison. His arrival puts the kibosh on any romantic intentions Driver may have had toward Irene. But he still hangs out with the fam—and learns that Standard owes big-time money to a handful of thugs. It's protection money for keeping him safe in jail. Do one last job for us, they tell him, and we'll call it good. If you don't, we're coming after you and your family. And they give Standard's little boy a bullet to, well, drive the point home.
Standard doesn't want to do the job. But it seems like the only way to keep his family safe. And Driver volunteers to help. So the two of them, plus an accomplice named Blanche, head to a pawnshop for a five-minute, $45,000 stickup.
Four minutes later, Standard's dead, his blood all over the pavement. And before the afternoon's up, Blanche is dead too—most of her head splattered against a motel wall. Driver's left literally holding the bag, a bag filled with a million dollars.
Killers are gunning for Driver now, and maybe for Irene and Benicio too. So you'd think Driver might get behind the wheel of his nearest car and vroom far, far away. But he won't. Not with a quasi-family to protect. He has a new motivation now—a new drive, if you will. He knows the road before him and he's determined to cruise down it to the end: theirs or his.
Driver is far from some innocent, nitrous-powered hero. He's involved in some pretty shady work and, as the movie rolls, there are strong indicators that he wasn't always "just" a hands-off driver. (Blood—even when it's being splashed by the gallon—doesn't much phase him.) But Irene and Benicio bring out his humanity. In return he helps Irene through a difficult stretch and gives of himself to Benicio too.
Obviously we could (and will) take issue with the particulars of this extramarital relationship: Driver and Irene are attracted to each other. But Driver really does care for her and her son—and when Standard is released, he cares for him too. He shifts uneasily but sincerely from surrogate father and almost lover to family friend, trying to help in the only way he can. (Although, I'll take issue with some of the ways he does that too.)
Standard isn't quite sure what to make of Driver and the attention he's been showering on his wife and child. But he tries to be both trusting and generous, thanking Driver for his help and giving him and his wife the benefit of the doubt. He is, for a time, Drive's most admirable character, showing a real desire to change his ways. "It's a shameful thing that I did," he say upon his release from prison, "and I've got a lot of making up to do. Second chances are rare, and that's worth celebrating." When asked to perform the heist, he at first refuses—and is beaten horribly for doing so. Only when Benicio is threatened does he acquiesce.
Over dinner, Standard tells Benicio and Driver the story of how he and Irene first met. She was 17, he says, and so he "illegally" walked up to her and introduced himself. "It was the best day of my life," he says, adding that a year later, Benicio "popped out."
Driver goes to a strip club and barges into a dressing room in which are several topless woman. Driver and Irene hold hands. (Standard's still alive.) And after Standard's killed, Driver plants a passionate kiss on Irene in an elevator. A crime lord makes references to female genitalia.
In some ultra-violent R-rated movies, the gore and body count is so hyperbolically extreme that by the time the credits roll, the audience begins to laugh at every evisceration, every decapitation, every outlandish use of red food coloring.
Watching Drive, no one laughed in the theater I was in.
Drive lulls viewers into a false calm for the first third of the story before unholstering its gun and firing—both at its characters and its audience—with both barrels. The violence, at least at first, feels quite real, and it's all the more troubling because of it.
Standard is brutally gunned down in a parking lot, the sound of the shots pounding through the air like a crowbar. Blanche dies in a motel bathroom: A thug takes aim at her head with a shotgun and we watch it vanish in a spray of blood. Driver escapes, but only by killing both killers—dispatching one by ramming a shower rod through his neck and chest. (Afterwards, Driver lets loose a curious half-smile, blood coating his face in rivulets, like on a car windshield during a light rain.)
Over the next half-hour or so, the film continues to amp up the atrocities. Driver smashes a thug's fingers with a hammer and threatens to pound a bullet into the man's forehead. A crime boss stabs an underling in the eye with a fork before puncturing his throat several times with a large kitchen knife. Driver stomps on someone's head in an elevator until the man's skull opens like a rotten cantaloupe—then stamps some more for good measure.
A man is forced to drown (offscreen). One man slits another's arm to the elbow, cooing over him as his victim bleeds out. Standard is brutally beaten, and we see his face bloodied and bruised. Two people stab each other in a parking lot. (We see their shadows.) Driver pries open someone's mouth with a hammer and forces him to swallow a bullet. His clothes are stained with blood, and the camera lingers on his blood-streaked sneakers. A "doctor" grotesquely picks pieces of shrapnel out of Driver's arm. Driver slaps a woman across the face and threatens additional violence if she doesn't tell him the truth.
One car rams another, sending it flying off a small cliff. A harrowing car chase ends with a crash. A stunt car flips over during the filming of a movie.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 30 f-words, a half-dozen s-words and a smattering of other profanities, including "a‑‑," "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n" and "p‑‑‑y." God's and Jesus' names are each abused once. We see an obscene hand gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters smoke cigarettes. Someone offers Driver a variety of drugs, including benzidine and caffeine, to help him stay awake. Wine bottles are seen at a restaurant.
Other Negative Elements
The film's main evildoers are a duplicitous bunch, often lying about their intentions. Even Driver's supposed best friend, Shannon, isn't all that honest. And it's suggested that he often takes advantage of Driver as something of an inside joke.
Would it be redundant at this point to say that characters are guilty of committing traffic violations?
Drive is a story of what could've been.
It begins as an atmospheric thriller—one that impresses through minimalism. The characters barely talk, barely move, it seems. The first "action" sequence is a "languid" drive through town as Driver tries to elude police in an anonymous Chevy Impala: There are no crashes, no explosions—and yet the scene is white-knuckle all the way through. Drive, in its early going, is taut without being terribly tawdry.
Am I going to actually like this film? I thought to myself a half-hour in.
Alas, there was no chance of that—not when the bullets began flying. Director Nicolas Winding Refn leads viewers quietly into the film and then, without a blink, takes out a metaphorical kneecap. When he does, perhaps because of the understated intro, it feels so … violent. Brutally so. Gratuitously so. Refn seems to want his audiences to suffer and uses repetition to ensure that they do. But instead of adding to the story, so carefully constructed in the beginning, his method crushes it with a claw hammer.
The film is pretty problematic regardless, of course. Driver, our supposed hero, is also a lawbreaker and, in the end, a murderer. He and Irene engage in a relationship that, had Standard been released just a wee bit later, would've surely ended up in bed. And Driver's way of helping a family in need is by helping with a heist.
Still, it's the cut-and-dried content I remember most. The murder. The blood. The way Driver stomps on a man's head and how, long after the skull has been caved and crushed, keeps driving his heel into the gore, again and again.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Ryan Gosling as Driver; Carey Mulligan as Irene; Bryan Cranston as Shannon; Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose; Oscar Isaac as Standard; Christina Hendricks as Blanche; Ron Perlman as Nino
Nicolas Winding Refn ( )
September 16, 2011
January 31, 2012