I'm always a little worried for Blu-ray releases of movies I love and obsess over. Perfect quality is hard to come by, but I always want my favorite films to be presented in that manner. As usual, I worried about 'Drive' (especially because it's a low-budget indie flick), but I'm proud to say Sony has done the film absolute and sweet justice.
'Drive' was the second film of 2011 to successfully give a mainstream blockbuster story the purely original indie treatment (the other being 'Hanna'). Director Nicolas Winding Refn took an intense heist-ish screenplay, gave it a retro-noir vibe, slowed down the pacing to an unconventional slow boil and wound up making one of the coolest movies of all time.
The film opens with Ryan Gosling explaining the conditions of his employment to an anonymous employer over the phone. "If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours - no matter what. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun... I drive." You see, Gosling's character, known solely as "Driver," is a part-time Hollywood stunt driver by day and wheelman (getaway driver) by night. Aside from the fact that he also works in an auto repair garage, this is literally all we know about him. And for the story at hand, this is all we need to know.
Screenwriter Hossein Amini best describes what happens next in the film. He and Refn refer to the film as a Grimm-like fairytale. Driver, our knight in shining armor (a tight silk scorpion jacket), meets a damsel in distress, Irene (Carey Mulligan). Irene isn't quite a single mom, as her husband Standard is in jail, but she sure is in over her head trying to be a sole provider and only parent. When Driver sees neighbor Irene in need, he quickly comes to her aid. Exchanging very little dialog, the two form a visible relationship kept innocent by their pureness and the fact that she already has a "prince" of her own, as flawed as he may be.
Prince Standard becomes the catalyst of the film when he's released early from jail. We initially don't care much for him because he's a convicted criminal and he suspects our pure hero Driver for moving in on Irene in his absence, but when we see that he's truly a penitent, reformed man, we begin to like him. Even though he has a flawed past, Standard truly is a noble prince - but it's odd rooting for him because he's the obstacle keep the two should-be lovers apart.
Before long, trouble follows Standard home from jail, he's beaten and threatened in front of his young son. It turns out that Standard owes a few gangsters for protection that he received in jail. If he doesn't rob a small pawn shop, then they're going to kill him, Irene and their son. When Driver learns this, he goes behind Irene's unknowing back and volunteers to be Standard's wheelman to make sure that he gets away from the robbery absolutely clean – but when the robbery goes bad, all of their lives are turned completely upside down.
Yes, 'Drive' is a low-budget indie film that functioned on a $10 million budget, but you'd never know it from looking at it. Refn's unique and creative shooting style allows it to function flawlessly under such constraints. The opening car chase is shot entirely from inside Driver's speeding car (with the exception of a few aerial chopper shots showing spotlights looking for the getaway car). This may be the first entirely interior car chase sequence featured in a film to date, but it's actually far more exhilarating and intense. But not all of the action sequences are shot that way. The chase after Standard's botched getaway unfolds in the traditional Hollywood manner, and it's still a thrilling ride.
'Drive' also breaks the mold with its violence. Sure, there's a good amount of it – but it's unlike that of mainstream cinema. The violence is presented in realist, short bursts of extremely graphic content. There aren't any huge shoot-out sequences. Instead, they're short, to-the-point, and disgustingly bloody. Instead of filling those violent scenes with never-ending magazines of ammo that last the entire two-minute scene, Refn uses smooth slow motion to make these same short scenes seem just as intense as the long real-time ones. The most-mentioned scene of them all is an elevator fight sequence that resembles scenes from 'Sin City' and 'American History X' - but, honestly, those aren't the moments and images that give 'Drive' the brilliant credit it's due.
When I think of 'Drive,' the first thing to come to mind is the elevator scene - but not the violent part that everyone talks about. Instead, I think of the slow motion moments before it that have nothing to do with taking down an armed man. I'll keep it vague for the sake of not spoiling one of the best cinematic moments of all time. Director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel deserves the cinematography Oscar this year. Watching the Blu-ray was my second viewing experience with 'Drive.' When I saw it in the theater, my jaw sat agape the entire time because of how brilliantly everything worked on a level that spoke directly to me. Watching it this second time gave me the chance to relish in the technical merits of it. There isn't a single frame of the movie that isn't iconic and downright gorgeous.
What makes 'Drive' a 5-star film is the fact that it isn't just stylized and well-shot, but it's perfect in every single aspect. Refn could not have assembled a better cast. Gosling and Mulligan are just as amazing as they have ever been. Secondary actors Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac and Ron Pearlman also knock it out of the park. But it's the main loanshark villain Albert Brooks who takes the cake. I never suspected that I would ever fear Brooks, but after seeing what a menacing and unpredictable villain he can be, I'm terrified of the man. Aside from a silent film, I don't know that any film has accomplished so much with so little dialog – and that's mostly due to Refn and the actors. But don't think that the script is lacking anything. My favorite example of how brilliant the screenplay is takes place in scene right after we meet Brooks' terrifying character. After a jump cut, we see Driver and Irene's kid watching cartoons together in an off-screen television set. Driver asks the kid if a certain character is the "bad guy," to which he replies, "Yep." Driver asks, "How do you know?" The answer: "He's a shark. Sharks are always the bad guys." The film is filled with smart and subtle moments, but you need to be paying attention to fully appreciate it.
In any other movie, that bit would have been throw-away background dialog. If you're not keeping a watchful eye, you might even miss it in 'Drive' – but that's how the whole film is. If during your first viewing experience you simply glide over it, expecting nothing more than a thrilling Hollywood movie, you're going to miss everything that makes 'Drive' stand out from the others. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you'll see and hear things unlike anything else you've ever experienced. You'll recognize how the seemingly random decision to give the film entirely '80s music and scoring heightens the mood and tone of the film. Had it been set to contemporary music and scoring, it would not have been as effective. You'll see the beauty of the slow motion "calm before the storm" in the elevator. You'll understand the unspoken dialog of characters between shared glances.
I could gush over 'Drive' for another 1000-plus words, but I feel that I've given you enough to convey exactly why you absolutely have to own 'Drive.' Now get ready for more gushing as we get into the demo-worthy technical aspects.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has placed 'Drive' on a Region A BD-50 in standard blue keepcase. Like many other new releases, the keepcase isn't the standard eco-friendly one with a cookie-cutter recycle logo, but it sure isn't as thick as the typical standard cases. The plastic is obviously thinner and more pliable than normal. Visible through the plastic on the back of the cover art sheet is an image from the film of a car soaring through the night air. Upon inserting the disc into your placer, your viewing experience will be slowed down by the typical fanfare – two vanity reels and five trailers – but luckily all of it can be skipped over. Although it's not mentioned on the cover art, 'Drive' comes with a code that unlocks an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film.
'Drive' has been given a 1080p transfer with an AVC MPEG-4 encode presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Whenever I review a Blu-ray of a film I love, I'm typically over critical, only wanting to see a beloved title in a perfect state – but it's usually a slight let-down. Fortunately, that's not the case with 'Drive.'
I watched the 'Drive' Blu-ray looking for flaws – but none were to be found. I invited a friend over to watch it with me since he missed it during its quick theatrical run and he kept spouting comments like, "I don't know that I've ever seen a Blu-ray look this good." The funny thing is that I can only name a few titles in my collection off the top of my head that also look this amazing.
No matter the shot – nighttime, daytime, long shot, close-up, aerial, whatever – this entire film looks perfectly crisp and clear. It's always sharp and detailed. 'Drive' may be '80s in theme, but it's not in video quality. It is grain-less and 100 percent noise-free.
Ever since hearing 'The Ice Harvest' described as a "retro film noir," that's the only way I've thought to describe films like this. It's dark in picture and theme, yet also vibrant and colorful in design, like something from the '80s. The blacks are deep rich. Of course, they're meant to hide objects and detail in certain shots, but they never resort to crushing. Colors – especially the ever-present reds (like Hendricks' hair) – explode onto the big screen.
Edge enhancement, digital noise reduction, banding and artifacts aren't an issue. I constantly watched for noise – amidst so many dark scenes, it had to pop up, right? Wrong. It never does. There are countless on-screen objects that would cause aliasing on any other indie film's Blu-ray release, yet it never occurs on the 'Drive' Blu-ray.
Only one listening option is presented with 'Drive' – an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track – so there's not an audio option on the main menu. Just like the film itself and the picture quality, the 'Drive' Blu-ray features 5-star demo-worthy audio.
Any scene from the film can be used for demo purposes, but the opening scene is arguably the best for showing off both picture and sound. The ominous synthesized single-tone scoring (when used in place of silence) is almost better at conveying a mood than tradition contemporary scoring. The bass in these scenes convey the feeling of an impeding doom. As the engine revs up and Driver has to outrun squad cars and a chopper, you'll feel like you're sitting in the front seat of a hot rod. The score disappears and this monstrous engine become the mood-conveying score. As a chopper does a low altitude fly-by trying to spot Driver's suspected vehicle below a bridge, the sounds of the off-screen chopper not only seamlessly travel across the room, but they seem to emanate from above – which is insanely effective considering I don't have speakers mounted in my ceiling.
Know that this high quality mix isn't only strong like this in the beginning of the film. It's non-stop. During car wrecks, you'll not only hear house-shaking LFE, but insanely dynamic effects that sound as if there are dozens of layers of sounds added to each effect. The film features a few gunshots, each of them ringing loud and blasting right through you.
It's not often enough that we get 5-star video and audio qualities, so it's only fitting that 'Drive,' a 5-star film, winds up with some of very the best demo-worthy technical ratings. In every single aspect of filmmaking – directing, writing, acting, cinematography, lighting, special effects – 'Drive' is pitch-perfect. It never strikes an off note. It functions like a high-performance vehicle, not once misfiring. It takes a familiar and played-out genre of mainstream cinema and gives it revitalizing and refreshingly creativity via the original flare of independent filmmaking. To our great benefit, 'Drive' has been given a demo-worthy Blu-ray release that matches the perfect quality of the film itself. Most of the special features aren't that great, falling a bit short, but one is extensive and highly informative - an interview with the director that's a worthy substitute for a commentary. 'Drive' just might be the very best Blu-ray in my collection, one you should be sure to add to your own.