Drive is the American debut for Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who’s best known for films like Valhalla Rising, Bronson, and the Pusher trilogy. However, unlike other directors who sold their souls upon entering Hollywood, the transition has not caused Refn to lose sight of the critical elements that constitute a great movie. At face value Drive may seem like a straightforward action movie, but it’s far more than that – it’s a riveting, multifaceted masterpiece which reinvigorates its ostensibly unoriginal narrative pieces and masterfully draws you into its largely unpredictable narrative. It’s sure to give mainstream audiences a thrill, but cinema enthusiasts will no doubt get the most out of the picture and appreciate everything it has to offer.
The film’s protagonist does not get a proper introduction and is never given a name; he’s known simply as Driver (Gosling). An extremely proficient force behind the wheel, Driver mostly works at a garage with mechanic friend Shannon (Cranston) while also picking up work as a stunt performer on film sets and moonlighting as a wheelman for criminals. However, Driver is preparing to move into stock car racing; a business arrangement organised by Shannon and financially supported by a gangster named Bernie (Brooks). Driver’s life drastically changes, though, when he meets his neighbour Irene (Mulligan) and her friendly son Benicio (Leos). A low-key, flirtatious relationship is formed between Irene and Driver, but this is threatened when Irene’s criminal husband Standard (Isaac) is released from prison. Standard soon finds himself in trouble with local thugs who demand that he pay off his incarceration protection debt. With Standard’s troubles putting Irene and Benicio in harm’s way, Driver steps up to help. From this point on, things start to go awry, and Driver is left trying to protect both himself and those closest to him.
Labelling Drive as “the arthouse Transporter” or “The Transporter for smart audiences” may seem like an apt assessment, but the designation ultimately sells both flicks short. I like the Transporter films, while Drive is a whole lot more than just a superior version of The Transporter. Refn’s film is its own unique specimen – in fact its closest blood relatives are probably the darker films of the Coen Brothers (think No Country for Old Men or Miller’s Crossing) without the self-aware quirkiness. This is vehemently a character-driven story, with a handful of intense action scenes being connected by intense scenes of character development and compelling drama. The narrative flow doesn’t reek of Hollywood convention, but rather of innovation and intelligence, and it’s hard to predict what will happen next. Refn is also an artistic filmmaker – it seems as if every shadow, every beam of light, every shot, every angle and every frame was subject to heavy consideration, leading to an enthralling sense of authority that pervades every millisecond of the film. With the freedom of an R rating, Refn also refused to hold back in terms of violence, but the unsettling content isn’t here for cheap thrills; it instead serves to up the stakes and introduce a genuine sense of danger beyond intimidating dialogue.
The picture’s look and feel is purely retro. It feels ripped out of the ’70s or ’80s, right down to the neon pink cursive font that was used for the titles. The soundtrack bursts with beautiful, moody ’80s-inspired synth beats which come courtesy of Cliff Martinez’s enthralling score and the perfect song choices. The opening credits follow Driver around Los Angeles to the tune of Nightcall (by Kavinsky), and it’s a perfect way to introduce both this world and this character. The film’s aural soul, meanwhile, is the recurring A Real Hero (by College feat. Electric Youth) which sounds like an ’80s tune (think Tangerine Dream) despite being only a few years old. Meanwhile, Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography is just as assured as Refn’s direction. While the car chases and action scenes aren’t frenetic like most modern actioners, they are sleek, clever and quietly gripping. Add to this the engaging sound design, and Drive is a film that’s meant to be seen in a cinema. Indeed, this is a true cinematic experience; a motion picture that subtly engrosses and mesmerises you through masterful filmmaking, and refuses to release you from its spell until the end credits begin to roll.
A few years ago, Ryan Gosling was simply seen as “that guy from The Notebook“. However, just as Leonard DiCaprio broke away from his Titanic image through star-making turns in films like The Departed and Blood Diamond, Gosling is now taking on complex, memorable roles in films like Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine, 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. and now Drive. This role was a perfect fit for Gosling, who delivered an absorbing, almost wordless performance. Most importantly, nothing feels forced; his soft-spoken persona feels entirely organic. Fortunately, Gosling was surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast. Irene could’ve been a thankless side character, but young Carey Mulligan (2009’s An Education) layered her performance with nuances and emotional depth; making so much of such a small role. Mulligan has the right type of innocent look and sweet nature to make the character work, not to mention the right acting maturity. Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad), Ron Perlman (TV’s Sons of Anarchy) and Oscar Isaac (Sucker Punch) are also effective, affording genuine dimension to their respective roles. The real standout, though, is Albert Brooks, who was cast against type as the menacing Bernie. Brooks’ role has a genial nature on the outside, which makes his penchant for violence all the more shocking.
Drive is at once a poignant love story, a brutal action pic and a tense crime thriller, but it’s not tonally schizophrenic, and each style was nailed with immense dexterity. It’s hard to pinpoint all of the reasons why Drive is such a gem. This is simply a case of everything being perfect; the pacing, the direction, the acting, the dialogue, the photography, the editing, the production design, the music…everything is spot-on, combining to create one of the most memorable and brilliantly unpredictable motion pictures in years. This is both arthouse at its finest and action at its finest – in fact this is the only arthouse movie in recent memory that I’d watch again and again.