And the award for "Most Overrated Film of 2011" goes to...well, something else, but Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive might be somewhere down the list. To be fair, this suspenseful character study has plenty of highlights: a great soundtrack, solid performances and a thick atmosphere, for starters. Hell, the opening sequence alone is almost worth the price of admission. As the film wears on, though, it devolves into more of a one-note revenge flick that's almost unwarranted in its brutality. Yet Drive still remains watchable even during the lower points...and more often than not, it walks the talk.
Our story focuses on a nameless L.A. driver (Ryan Gosling) who wears four hats on a regular basis: stunt driver for Hollywood movies, mechanic at a garage owned by associate Shannon (Bryan Cranston), wheelman for petty criminals, and loner with no long-term goals. "Driver" only speaks when necessary, displays minimal body language and reveals nothing about his past. Shannon sees dollar signs in the young man's driving abilities and borrows money from local mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) to buy a used stock car. Meanwhile, Driver's budding "relationship" with neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) stalls after her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison. Standard's debts to a gangster lead him to Driver's doorstep [see hat #3], so the two set out on what might be an elaborate double-cross.
Gosling's character simply exists for the film's events to revolve around; most of the time, Drive's story is engaging and layered enough to make us forget this. Even so, it's told on a small scale: more often than not, encounters in Drive involve necessary characters and no one else. Whether for budgetary reasons or a stylistic choice, such a barren landscape seems questionable for L.A. but also amplifies the film's tense, focused atmosphere. In any case, Drive is a simple story at heart and purposefully similar to Grimms' fairy tales: it's an innocent love story that quickly transforms into brutal, over-the-top horror.
For my money, though, Drive pushes the latter too hard: the film does a 180 halfway through and never looks back, even when we want it to. Driver and his associates are either causes or recipients of killings on par with Irreversible or Rambo, though why we're shown everything in such graphic detail seems as head-scratching and mysterious as Driver himself. The film clings desperately to nuance and subtlety during much of the first half, but everything goes over the falls during a third act straight out of your average shoot-'em-up revenge flick. Most viewers who didn't like Drive probably wanted more gangsters and gore; personally, I feel that less would've made a more interesting film.
Even so, Drive does more than enough right to make it worth seeking out. Sony's Blu-Ray package certainly helps matters, serving up a rock-solid technical presentation and a few modest but well-meaning bonus features just for good measure. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Drive looks excellent. Most of the film looks to have been shot under low or natural light and has a stylized color palette; both are supported quite well by deep black levels and strong color definition. A handful of indoor sequences tend to look a little soft and flat on occasion, but close-ups, outdoor scenes and cityscapes are extremely crisp and textured. Digial problems (including DNR, edge enhancement, aliasing and compression artifacts) don't seem to be an issue here. Overall, this is a capable effort that fans should be pleased with.
Similarly, the audio mix is up to the challenge. Presented in Dolby DTS-HD Master Audio, this largely quiet film is filled with subtle atmospheric touches and opens up during action sequences and music cues. Cliff Martinez's score is also quite hypnotic at times; though it doesn't fill the soundstage like his work for Stephen Soderbergh's Traffic, the effect is still potent. Other surround activity is infrequent but noticeable, with strong channel separation and clarity from start to finish. Optional English and Spanish subtitles, as well as English SDH captions, are included during the film and bonus material.
Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design
Seen below, this one-disc release is housed in a standard-width Blu-Ray case with attractive dual-sided artwork and a few promotional inserts (not shown). Menu designs are smooth, practical and easy to navigate; unfortunately, they're prefaced by at least a half-dozen trailers which can only be skipped individually. The 110-minute main feature has been divided into roughly 20 chapters, no obvious layer change was detected and this Blu-Ray appears to be locked for Region "A" playback only.
This isn't a fully-loaded release, but what we get is of reasonably good quality. A collection of four brief Featurettes
covers the basics: "I Drive" (5:26) provides a quick dissection of the main character; "Under the Hood" (11:50) covers casting, development and deviations from the book; "Driver and Irene" (6:14) looks at the relationship of our two leads; and "Cut to the Chase" (4:35) provides an all-too-brief look at the stunt driving. All four segments go into modest detail and feature cast and crew interviews; overall, it's about a 50-50 balance between promotional chit-chat and more valuable comments.
"Drive Without a Driver" (25:41) is next, and this interview with director Nicolas Winding Refn digs a bit deeper than the earlier featurettes. From start to finish, this sit-down chat talk about Refn's earlier projects, Driver's journey from Universal Studios rejection to the independent route, working with a $10M budget, casting, cinematography and the journey to the Cannes Film Festival. It's a relatively low-key but engaging session, even if there is a bit of overlap between this and some of the featurettes.
Last is a collection of Previews (6 clips, 14:11 total) that also plays before the main menu, but Driver's trailer is not included. All extras are presented in 1080p and include optional English subtitles.
Oh, and there's also an Ultraviolet Copy available via an online code, if that floats your boat.
Drive is a pulsing, suspenseful and layered film at times...yet the third act plays out more like a one-note revenge fantasy, for better or for worse. It's an odd mixture that may feel more seamless in the right mood, but one can't deny the film's strong performances, memorable score and thick atmosphere. Sony's Blu-Ray isn't fully loaded but gets the job done, pairing a fantastic technical presentation with a small assortment of quality bonus features. The film's dark subject matter doesn't lend itself to broad appeal, but interested parties should consider Drive worth a serious look. Recommended.
NOTE: The above images were obtained from promotional outlets and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two in his spare time. He also enjoys slacking off, telling lame jokes and writing stuff in third person.