Like many a pimped out ride that has come before it, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive pulls up alongside the curb as if towed by vehicle fueled purely by hype. Since putting himself on the map with his trilogy of Pusher films, Refn has been steadily building a profile as an often brutal yet stylish filmmaker, and his most recent efforts of Bronson and Valhalla Rising have only solidified this reputation. Hitching his testosterone injected motifs to the incredible wave of swooning happening around star Ryan Gosling, the man you wish your man could be, Drive has already won the outspoken Refn the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and shows no signs of slowing down by the time it hits our cinema lights.
The Driver (Ryan Gosling, Crazy, Stupid, Love) works as a mechanic and a stunt driver, eking out a living between professional jobs as a getaway driver. From an early stage, we see the Driver’s skills, not only as a fast and skilled driver, but as a tactical one as well. Shannon (Bryan Cranston, TV’s Breaking Bad) employs the Driver for his repair skills, but banks on his strength behind the wheel when he asks mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, The Simpsons Movie) and his thuggish business partner Nino (Ron Perlman) for a $300,000 loan to start a racing venture. Meanwhile, the Driver gets to know his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan, Never Let Me Go) and her son, spending time with them even after her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) comes home from prison. However, when a job goes wrong, the Driver’s attempts to put things right lands everyone he knows in jeopardy.
While it may share some characteristics with the 1978 Walter Hill film The Driver, with Drive Refn has created one of the first truly original crime dramas in decades. Like that film, it unquestionably draws influences from Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, and in particular Le Samouraï. The Driver is a solitary creature, rarely allowing himself the indulgence of possessions or romantic entanglements, for these are the weaknesses that ultimately lead to the troubles he lands himself in. For the first half of the film, few pieces of dialogue escape from the taciturn Gosling, and he remains in the retro-jacketed uniform he has fashioned for himself, much as Alain Delon’s iconic trenchcoat served as a emotional barrier between his actions and their consequences.
Gosling solidifies his reputation as a master of duality, switching between extremes as he has done before in Blue Valentine, Lars and the Real Girl and even Crazy, Stupid, Love. Mulligan is effortlessly graceful and fragile, and will undoubtedly break any hearts that haven’t already fallen to a massive crush (or man crush) for Gosling himself. The real surprise here, although it shouldn’t be given his veteran status in the industry, is the non-comic turn of Albert Brooks, actually managing to a powerful enough force to intimidate even the bulldozer of a man that is Ron Perlman.
It would be unreasonable to expect Drive to be a Fast and Furious-style caper, as one litigious Michigan citizen did, but Refn’s sense of style makes this a much slicker affair than his previous efforts. The film is brutally violent in places, and unlike its bigger budget cousins, Drive wants to shock you each and every time, and audiences are never numbed to the visceral outbursts that the Driver has lurking under his skin. Yet there is a retro coolness to the film that even the most bloody of face-stompings can’t deny, drawing as much from Bullit and its kin as the artier pieces the lengthy close-ups often indicate. A cracking soundtrack, largely by Cliff Martinez (The Lincoln Lawyer, Contagion) and peppered with pop pieces such as Kavinsky’s distinctive “Nightcall” and Desire’s “Under Your Spell”, helps shape Refn’s distinctive vision into the singular experience that it is.
Drive is released in Australia on 27 October 2011 from Pinnacle Films.