Day Two at Film Independent’s 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival was a big success again last night, filling the streets with enthusiastic film fans, stars like Ryan Gosling and the even more beautiful in person Christina Hendricks, as well as some of the best indie filmmakers in the world. There were several films and events last night, but the big moment of the night came with the screening of the Cannes Film Festival hit Drive, which was making its North American premiere at LAFF. Thankfully, all of you will be able to see this masterwork noir thriller soon as the film gears up for its wide release in mid-September. But for now, here are my thoughts on the film from last night.
Drive may have been the most cinematic film I have seen this year, using every tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal to create a tense, rich, complex palette of emotions and themes within the intricate construct of the film. Then add in the fact that the film is just so damn entertaining and you have a recipe for brilliance, and perhaps a film that may rise to cult legend status and financial success like Pulp Fiction did back in the 90s. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn shows filmmaking chops that rival Scorsese and Coppola’s early work, using the gritty realism of the world the film is set in to intensify cinematic elements that never interfere with the narrative, only enhance it.
Simple concepts like establishing parts of a character through non-verbal cues, such as what they watch on TV, listen to on the radio, or turn their gaze towards in a given scene are refreshing elements lost in most modern films, but not with Refn, who has also done the brilliant ultraviolent thriller Bronson. Shots of characters chests, every breath illuminating the emotional place they are in, the way someone taps their finger, the gentle movement of a lip or mouth, all telling the viewer a story beyond the dialogue. I suppose that the subtlety of certain elements in the film may be lost on some, as it is so layered thematically, but films should challenge the viewers, as this film clearly will. In every frame, there is so much to take in, things can be missed, but that just makes for a film you can see again and again. I think of something like Goodfellas that I have seen an embarrassing amount of times, yet I still pick up new things upon screening it even today.
While Refn deserves a lot of credit for this film, it would not have the gravitas and power it does without contributions from key artists like cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. The use of lighting in Drive is intense, revelatory, and expansive, bringing to clarity the importance of lighting and camera work in a film. Sigel has done some great work before, but this may his finest yet, almost painting with light, and not like Thomas Kinkade, but like a true artist, filled with confidence and purpose, illuminating characters, physical elements, and emotions in ways that convey so much more than simple words can.
Along with the hauntingly beautiful images on screen is an audio experience unlike any I have had in some time. The sound design and musical selections in the film transport the viewer into another time and place, both retro and fresh, sort of in between eras into a world completely of Refn’s creation. Thumping bass from car engines pump my heart’s intensity, raising my BP along with the characters. It was inescapable; the viewer will be unable to prevent themselves from getting swept up into the film’s world, with not only these intense moments, but during the quieter moments as well. Nothing was left to chance with this film.
All of these technical and artistic achievements in Drive would be for naught without a cast of actors who could bring this story to life. Ryan Gosling asserts himself with a tour-de-force performance that touches on a vast array of raw emotions bringing the story into focus in a way few actors have this year. Then add in Academy Award nominated actress Carey Mulligan’s heartfelt and subtle take on her character, carrying her part of the narrative with skillful passion, while maintaining a balance with the intense thriller elements of the film. You want more, how about Bryan Cranston, becoming someone else yet again who is wholly different from his most well-known characters on Malcolm in the Middle and currently his role on the hit series Breaking Bad. You also have strong backing performances from Christina Hendricks, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Oscar Isaac that bring the film’s rich narrative into clarity through the essential characters they play in Drive.
Lastly, it is important to point out were moments last night watching Drive that almost brought me to tears, and not because of an emotional scene necessarily, but rather the realization that a film this intensely crafted and of such quality is so rare, as well as how important it is to embrace these opportunities. The film pays off the viewer from start to finish, from the building and discovery of elements of the narrative to the intense, unpredictable climax; it is amazing what happens when capable people are involved with all aspects of a film. Just in the brief introduction before the film, Refn gave a glimpse into who he is and how he works, which explains the brilliant piece that emerged here in addition the idea that any film professional would be well served to take notice of his candor, charisma, and attention to detail.
Check back often here and at the LAFF website for more as the festival continues tonight with a lot of quality films screening the rest of the fest as well as a cavalcade of events, panels, and parties still to come. For continuing coverage of The 2011 LAFF and other film festivals in the future, you can receive these articles directly as they are published by clicking on the “Subscribe” button at the top of this piece. You can also follow me on Twitter by searching for ericshlapack or by clicking the link below.
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