An audience hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a highly stylized, ultra-modern thriller that offers an unusual spin on the classical LA heist movie.
Ryan Gosling stars as Driver, the nameless antihero who makes a living as a stunt driver by day and moonlights as a getaway driver for LA’s criminal underworld by night. Primarily ambivalent about his line of work, the character is very much a disengaged, lone cowboy figure: “You get five minutes of my time. After that you’re on your own”.
Driver’s world is thrown off course when he falls for his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan). After a chance meeting in an elevator blossoms into friendship, Driver becomes entangled in the lives of her and her young son, Benicio. Driver reluctantly takes a backseat when Benicio’s father Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns from prison – that is, until Standard calls on him to perform one last heist in order to pay off his debts and care for his family.
Based on a novella by James Sallis, Drive was originally planned as a big budget action franchise with Hugh Jackman in the lead role. In the hands of Gosling and Refn, however, the film became rather a different beast. The pair found themselves united behind the idea of making a movie about driving as an existential experience; rather than high speed car chases and high octane stunts, the film would be about a guy who drives around listening to pop music at night because that was his emotional relief.
Instead, Drive is an exercise in high style, marrying B-movie action with art house cinematography. Refn borrows the visual motifs of 80s crime dramas and video games and presents them to the audience almost as an art form. Shots are framed like still photographs, whilst the pacing is self consciously slow throughout to allow the full impact of each tableau to sink in. The splashy 80s synth pop soundtrack and paranoid, pulsing rhythms that underscore some of the dramatic driving sequences are the perfect accompaniment to the film’s neo-noir aesthetic.
This slicing and splicing of references is a typically post modern trick; although this isn't irony, it's homage. For the most part, Refn’s vision is incredibly well executed – never more so than in the movie’s pivotal elevator scene, in which a stunning juxtaposition of tenderness and brutality leaves the audience gasping in their seats. Meanwhile, in Gosling’s hands Driver’s blank-canvas “man without a past” persona is far from two-dimensional: he is at once innocent, dangerous, mercenary, and just.
Unfortunately, this climactic scene is also the point at which Drive begins to lose the plot. As the denoument plays out, the movie begins to falter under the weight of its own artifice – the storyline begins to veer towards the ridiculous, whilst the supporting cast of kingpins and crooks are revealed as little more than unconvincing archetypes in support of the overall concept.
Despite its flaws, Drive is nevertheless an extremely enjoyable watch for its astounding visual flair (in particular the breathtaking Tarantino-esque violence) and Gosling's stellar performance as the taciturn leading man.