It’s hard to believe that Drive initially started as an action vehicle for Hugh Jackman before landing in the hands of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn – a man best known for his brutal Pusher trilogy – with Ryan Gosling firmly established in the lead role. The film, based on James Sallis’s unusual and dark crime novel, caused quite a stir on its release, winning Refn the coveted Best Director award at Cannes and sweeping the critical world by storm. And Drive is certainly worth its praise – a strange movie, and one far more interesting than its blunt title would suggest.The film follows an anonymous (referred to in the script simply as Driver) young stranger (Ryan Gosling) who works by day as a stunt driver and mechanic for Bryan Cranston’s Shannon – at night however he’s a getaway driver, a freelance escape artist who takes no nonsense, giving clients a set five minute window to get in, get out, and get away. Driver’s photographic knowledge of the labyrinthine streets of LA streets and excellent, verging on impossible skills behind the wheel render him the perfect man for such crimes. He gets stuff done, and life is simple – functioning as a machine of acceleration, gears and brakes with no complications.
And then he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), the lonely mother who lives next door, and the two form a bond. But when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns from jail, things are thrown into turmoil, and a pivotal crime job done as a favour lands Driver into a sordid mess of money and the mob. With gangsters Bernie and Nino (Mel Brooks and Ron Perlman) desperate for Driver’s blood, suddenly life isnt quite so simple anymore.In terms of plot though, Drive is relatively straight forward, and the focus here is more on atmosphere and style, though that’s not to say the story isn’t tight and tense. It’s an old fashioned movie, harking back to a simpler, stronger age of cinema, more reminiscent of Taxi Driver than most modern movies. Refn has stated that the film was based on 80s movies and it really shows in both style and simplicity. The film is also very well directed – Refn has an eye for framing and every shot is composed artistically and with care – you could take most of the stills from Drive and hang them on your wall. Refn is a confident director too and not afraid of long takes and slow, dreamy closeups – everything is very slow for a film about a getaway driver, and there’s a lot of breathing room. Crucially, there’s very little dialogue (and only one car chase) and the film rides its sun-drenched, heated atmosphere at its own quiet pace. It’s the coolest film in years, but doesn’t shout about it, and it’s slow, spirally tone gives the whole flick a very dreamlike, surreal feel. It’s otherworldly, and reflects David Lynch’s amazing LA classic Mullholland Drive. The two would go well as a double feature.Refn has essentially taken a B-story, and like Ridley Scott did with Alien, treated it as A material. The results are haunting. It’s a neo-noir crime flick which is very powerful to watch and heavy on its tone. The plot, whilst not too complex, is tense, and boosted by the fact that the characters come across as real people that the audience cares about. In a vein similar to Tarantino, the violence always feels present beneath the surface, but when it comes, suddenly and brutally, it’s intense, shocking and feels unexpected despite the simmering tension. The extreme gore only highlights the danger these characters are in and though over the top, is necessary to comment on the desensitisation of modern movie going audiences – we linger longer because we need to hit home how devastating violence is; there has to be a smack to make audiences jolt up. Also following Tarantino, Drive possesses an incredible soundtrack – 80s influenced and relevant as well as haunting, its one of the best movie soundtracks of all time, and really makes the film pop. It’s rare for music and image to align so perfectly on film.Of course, fantastic as Refn’s directing is, he’d be nothing without his leading man. A large part of Drive‘s success lies with Ryan Gosling who is mesmerizing here – it’s criminal he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for this role. He’s quiet and barely speaks, but the audience can see what’s ticking in his head – he’s constantly thinking, looking for means to escape, and Gosling delivers most of this with his eyes alone. Driver is a man of action who sees problems, solves them, and moves on, and Gosling has a huge screen presence, leaning back to the Marlon Brando and James Deans of old; it’s the kind of film defining, instantly iconic performance that’s rarely seen on the screen anymore. He’s the definition of cool, masculinity and it’s easy to see the males in the audience developing secret boy crushes – he’s really that hypnotising. Also, for such a quiet likeable character, he’s utterly frightening when he needs to be, with Gosling channelling a powerful, intense rage which really shakes through the movie. He’s really something to watch.Of course the rest of the cast are great too, from Cranston’s sad but loveable Shannon, to Isaac’s frightened and desperate Standard – both of whom crucially feel like real people, with real problems, who make bad decisions and get in over their heads. A reoccurring theme of Drive is people biting off more than they can chew and the cast channel this perfectly. Perlman is great as a the gruff, slightly stupid cornered Nino and Brooks gives an usually dark and threatening performance as mob boss Bernie. Carey Mulligan deserves special mention as Irene – the heroine, though out of type for this kind of crime drama, she’s not playing a femme fatale, merely a lonely mother who’s just trying to get by. She feels like a real woman and her understated, quietly desperate performance speaks volumes. Both Mulligan and Gosling simmer with chemistry and manage to say convey so much tension through mere body language. And this tension isn’t just sexual, more a screaming loneliness which neither of them can quite put into words. Watching the two together is fantastic.
Drive is a wonderfully hypnotising movie which leaves you shaken after you see it. An atmospheric and dreamy throw back to the simpler cinema of the 80s, with a wonderful cast held up by a fascinating Gosling and overseen by the confident, powerful directing of Refn. It really was the best movie of 2011, becoming an instant, iconic classic, and certainly worth a watch.
And check out my review of Only God Forgives too.