Drive is why we watch movies.
Nicolas Winding Refn is a filmmaker who clearly has a predilection towards violent men. A glance at his IMDb page shows that violence is something which clearly drives, pun firmly intended, Refn. From his early Danish Pushertrilogy through to Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising (2009) Refn’s films have always focused on men at war with their respective worlds. Men born and defined by the brutality they commit and witness. Drive is the culmination in his career, that point where, like his lead actor, he goes from promising filmmaker to bonafide cinematic genius. But, while Drive never shies from the violent aspects of the story this is a film founded in romance, love and an erotic charge that must either lead to sex or violence. Suffice to say in Refn’s world the two are never far apart.
Driver (Ryan Gosling), he is never given any other name, is a professional wheelman. He gives you a set time, he doesn’t sit in on the crime he simply gets you away from the action once it’s happened. By day he works with Shannon (Bryan Cranston) fixing cars, by night he cruises Los Angeles listening to 80s electro-pop. A man of few words Driver is a closed book until he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Sparking a close bond with the mother and son Driver’s outer shell begins to crack. That is until Irene’s husband, Standard, (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison and finds himself and his family threatened by a gang he owes money to. Driver agrees to help Standard, but before long finds himself having to break every rule in his book to protect Irene’s family from vicious mobsters Nino (Ron Pearlman) and Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks).
From the opening seconds to the closing credits Drive is a neo-noir seeped in eye-popping visuals and a soundtrack so evocative it makes you yearn for more. An existential musing on life and crime in a big city seen through the eyes of a young couple so hopelessly in love that more is communicated through longing looks than any physical contact. Driver is the quintessential western hero, a Shane (1953) or a Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, he rides into town to right the wrongs other people chose to ignore. An avenging angel in the City Of Angel’s where souls are bought and paid for in blood and bullets.
The action is sparse but when it arrives it hits you like a sucker-punch to the gut, leaving you reeling at the sheer ferocity of it. Even car chases take on sub-textual meaning, shot at a lethargic yet kinetic pace evoking something ethereal in moments of extreme violence or carnage. This is not about over the top action, if you want that watch Fast Five (2011), but rather tightly executed set pieces that heighten the overall exposition and themes of the film.
Where Refn truly excels though is in the quieter moments of film, and there are enough of them to wash over you in a neon lit dream of heavenly glow. Refn is never afraid to draw parallels between the sexual tension and the outbursts of violence on screen. Indeed Driver and Irene only touch once in the film but in that one scene Refn cranks the romantic levels up to full notch before unleashing one of the most viciously cringe inducing moments of cinema in quite some time.
Refn’s visuals have never been anything other than spectacular in his career to date and Drive is no exception. He is a director akin to Nic Roeg in the way he is able to paint such a visceral reality through his lens. This is the kind of direction that gives credence to the term ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Add to this a script so wonderfully understated in the dialogue department it allows Refn room to maneuver never missing the apex of a plot or theme and hitting ever beat with an energy rarely seen on film.
And then there was Gosling. Up until last year many cinemagoers would have heard the name but been unable to pick the man out of a line-up. Solid turns in Lars And The Real Girl (2007) and an Oscar Nomination for Half Nelson(2006), not to mention swooning girls thanks to his turn in The Notebook (2004), put Gosling firmly in the ‘one to watch’ pile of young up and coming actors. Now thanks to a startling turn here in Drive he is part of an elite group of actors whose company boasts the likes of James Dean, Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando. Icons of their generation Drive is the film that will cement Gosling as not only a huge talent, but an actor with so much Zen like cool on screen that men want to be him and women want to be with him. There is such screen presence on display here that Refn openly admits to having the confidence to frequently shoot Gosling from behind knowing full well that the emotions will always be communicated through his body-language. Mulligan and Cranston are both on sterling supporting duty, the former finding new levels of angelic glow she always brings to her performances. But it is Gosling from beginning to bitter end.
Drive is what makes cinema great; it is a film that while saying little speaks volumes. A film where all the elements come together is such perfect harmony you worry about the next film you see even remotely living up to its standards. Shannon says to Driver at one point “No one will be looking at you”, if Gosling and Refn continue along these lines the whole world will be watching their next move with baited breath.