Every once in a while a car movie comes along that is so well done that it transcends the genre and may be considered classic of the medium itself.

Past films such as Two Lane Blacktop, American Graffiti and the original Vanishing Point spring to mind as prime examples. But in today’s cinematic world of CGI and explosion-a-minute action-film pacing, a question arises: does Hollywood know how to make an artful car movie anymore, or has it lost that ability much in the manner that it has forgotten how to make a high-brow horror film?

In this month’s installment of Rob’s Car Movie Review, I’ll attempt to answer this query by having a look at 2011’s Drive!

Drive (2011) Movie Poster.

Based on a novel by James Sallis, and helmed by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive was produced in collaboration by FilmDistrict, Bold Films, OddLot Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions, Motel Movies and Newbridge Film Capital, and was distributed in the United States by Universal Pictures.

Like all films with lofty aspirations, it features an inspired cast of luminaries and notable character actors, including Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Oscar Isaac.

The Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Irene (Carey Mulligan).

When the movie begins, a thirty-something year old man, known only as The Driver (Gosling), lives in Los Angeles where he works as an auto mechanic and stuntman, and moonlights as a freelance getaway driver for criminal crews. His employer and friend, Shannon (Cranston) convinces mobsters Bernie (Brooks) and Nino (Perlman) to invest in a racing car, that The Driver will pilot in local stock car races. In the midst of this, The Driver meets his neighbor, Irene (Mulligan) and her young son, and befriends them while Irene’s husband, Standard Gabriel (Isaac), does time in prison for armed robbery.

Shannon (Bryan Cranston).

Upon Standard’s release, he and the Driver become friends, and Standard appeals to the latter for help when he is badly beaten by some thugs to whose boss Standard owes protection money.

Together, The Driver and Standard approach the crime boss and agree to pull off the heist of a pawnshop with the help of one of the mobster’s associates, in return for Standard’s debt being settled, and the threats of harm to Irene and their son being rescinded.

The heist goes awry and turns into a pursuit.

The heist goes awry, and The Driver is embroiled in a high-speed chase with a mysterious car full of unknown baddies. In the end, The Driver is left with a duffel bag of stolen loot, which puts him firmly in the sights of the crime boss. Further complications arise when it turns out that Bernie and Nino had an interest in the robbery as well, pitting them against The Driver, their former protégé, as well. Who can the driver trust to extricate himself, Irene and her son from this deadly web?

Benefactor, then nemesis: mobster Bernie (Albert Brooks).

Drive is an extraordinarily well-crafted movie. It plays like a modern noir film, with its minimalist dialogue (Gosling doesn’t utter a single word during a getaway that encompasses the flick’s opening ten minutes) and laconic, yet relentless pacing.

The intricate weaving of opposing factions of characters elevates the story beyond that typically present in a car movie; and the superb acting, slick cinematography, numerous sublime moments of creative editing, and seemingly incongruous, yet oddly apt synth-pop soundtrack further enhance the proceedings.

What is most striking to this reviewer is how The Driver’s character is crafted: stoic, unapologetic and, pardon the pun, driven; much in the mold of retro car movie icons such as Steve McQueen’s characters in Bullitt and LeMans, and Barry Newman’s Kowalski in Vanishing Point.

The Driver’s 1973 Chevy Chevelle Malibu.

Which leads us to the automotive action. Featured in the film are a variety of hot cars, from a black 5.0L Ford Mustang GT getaway vehicle, to various and sundry classic American muscle cars such as Chargers, GTOs and Thunderbirds in Shannon’s garage, as well as the stock car purchased by Bernie and Nino and The Driver’s Chevelle Malibu. Quite simply, there is plenty for the gearhead to ogle here.

Nino (Ron Perlman) admires a Ford Thunderbird in Shannon’s garage.

And the stunt driving? Utterly superb. The film’s main chase sequence after the pawnshop heist is virtually automotive ballet, in which The Driver at one point pilots the aforementioned Mustang IN REVERSE at ludicrous speed.

Every see a high speed pursuit in reverse gear?

When Drive initially hit the film festival circuit before its theatrical release, it garnered universal praise from audiences, including a standing ovation at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, which gave director Refn its Best Director award. For me, Drive is a modern classic of retro-cool themes, characters and story, which confirms that when it wants to, Hollywood can indeed still do the car movie well. I give Drive 8.5 out of 10 pistons, and strongly suggest you see it. NOW.


About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.