The plot of Drive is standard and sturdy, rounded out with character actors who let their faces explain most of their back-stories. Ryan Gosling, who at this point seems incapable of turning in anything less than a great performance, stars as the nameless Driver, a man who lets his actions do all the talking. Hollywood stunt driver by day and freelance getaway wheel-man by night, he’s the classic, silent type for this type of fare – think Alain Delon in Le Samourai or Ryan O’Neal in The Driver. He falls in love with his neighbor, a quietly effective Carey Mulligan, who is raising her young son and waiting for her criminal-type husband (a wiry Oscar Isaac) to get out of prison. Once released, he talks Driver into helping him out on a seemingly easy robbery, which predictably goes bad, thus forcing Driver to step in and figure out what’s what and who’s who. The hoods that stand in his way include the Oscar-baiting Albert Brooks who is deliciously nasty as the head-honcho-villain, Ron Perlman as a put-upon Jewish gangster, and Bryan Cranston as an allegiance-testing mentor figure who may not be all that he seems. Again, as mentioned, all of this is classic genre material, nothing out of the ordinary, but perfectly acceptable and intriguing. What makes Drive great is watching how Refn and Amini put their characters through their paces, subverting genre expectations almost the entire way, all the while tying up all loose ends by the finish, and yet still providing a denouement that leaves plenty of food for thought.
Based on a novel by James Sallis, Drive gets to play off the notions of reality and Hollywood trickery. Because Driver is a Hollywood stunt-man, so used to escaping near death situations and always performing the most dangerous of tasks on set, he’s a guy who has built up an artificial sense of indestructibility and importance. So, when confronted with immediate physical danger, he doesn’t blink an eye; he’s used to being ready to go that everything comes natural to him. There’s no overt stress. Cool as a cucumber as they’d say. This creates for a dangerous and edgy atmosphere; when you have a lead character who thinks that nothing can stop them it makes for an unpredictable time at the movies. Refn, no fool to the fact that Hollywood and reality oh-so-often imitate one another, draws parallels between the controlled environments of the movie-sets that Driver operates on, and the way Driver tells his perspective clients the rules of how he operates in his getaway car. He’s not there to help, not there to hold a gun – he’s there to drive. He’s a man built by discipline and order, following a specific set of codes, never sharing too much externally, but still emotional enough to understand how other people are feeling, and sympathetic enough for the audience to root for, no matter how nasty he can become. The duality of Gosling’s role is rich and deceptively complex.Refn’s sound and visual fury must also be addressed. Utilizing a kitschy, catchy blend of semi-obscure 80’s pop and Mann/Friedkin-esque background synth, the score and musical selection in Drive amps up the events of every scene and instantly places the film in a hyper-realistic context. Then, when coupled with the indelible images of master cinematographer Newton-Thomas Sigel (Three Kings, The Usual Suspects) and the precision of Refn’s overall mise-en-scene, a perfect marriage between image and sound is firmly in place. Refn’s love of slow-motion creates instantly dreamy sequences in an otherwise starkly literal film. The way time and space slows down during key scenes (the elevator scene; when Driver pulls into his parking garage and observes the thugs who have just worked over Standard’s face) increases tension and creates forward momentum. And when Cliff Martinez’s ambient, extremely stylized score kicks in, you’re off to the races. As with his previous films and much like Quentin Tarantino, Refn demonstrates a clear understanding of how music supports images, and vice versa, and how the use of silence can be just as important as any loud sound effect or eclectic musical cue.
The violence in Drive is worth addressing, because, well, this is a viciously bloody and at times savage film that’s part of a genre that lives and breathes on new ways of killing people. Drive is set in a world populated by murderers and psychopaths, degenerate strip club owners, and mob bag-men. It’s not a nice world. People are mean. They carry knives and they like to use them; not since Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises have there been this many slit throats. The threat of physical violence hovers over every scene of Drive. This is a talent of Refn’s, as in both Bronson and Valhalla Rising, there was a palpable sense of dread in every scene. In Drive, people are shot, stabbed, head-stomped, finger-crushed, and drowned. Most of these deaths are bloody and messy, as they should be. But, nothing ever felt gratuitous or unnecessary, as everything that happens within the narrative is logically connected and holds up to scrutiny. If there are plot holes in this film, they were not outright and obvious. And, it must be said, like Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick, Refn has a distinct way of depicting movie violence, that both feeds off of the horrors of the situation, and the dangerous, slick way that violence can act as emotional catharsis for both the characters and the audience. One specific scene in Drive – let’s call it the “elevator scene“ – is an instant classic because of the way Refn plays with tone and expectation, the real and the fake, and sensual and the savage. Through the use of slow-motion cinematography and a dreamy, trance-inducing piece of music, Refn takes Gosling’s character from love to hate in a matter of moments, a tonal switch that is massively bold and visceral to the extreme. With the woman he loves on one side of the elevator and the man sent to kill them on the other, it’s a sequence that will put hair in places on your body where there isn’t any.
Drive is an exhilarating piece of pop art for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Refn seems to be in such total command of his craft that it’s bracing to see a film of such strict exactitude. The last time a genre thriller felt this seamless from scene to scene was No Country for Old Men, and while Drive may not have anything as profound to say about man and the nature of violence within men as the Coen brothers’ film did, Drive feels as controlled and clock-work-precise as that Oscar winning masterwork. Drive exists mainly as an exercise in style, a film made by a filmmaker who was obsessed with finding the images that Mann, Hill, and Friedkin left on the cutting room floor back in the mid-80’s. It’s as tightly scripted as you could ask a movie to be, and the performances are all in perfect harmony with one another. And because of Refn’s artsy sensibilities and the fact that he got his movie made outside of the Hollywood system, Drive defies what you’ve come to expect from a “car-movie” or an “action-picture.” Just watch how the opening car-chase sequence is shot and edited and you’ll notice how things are subtly different in Drive. This is the sort of pure-cinema offering that filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Paul Thomas Anderson will adore, a movie steeped in genre-based tradition yet excited by the possibilities of the fresh and new.