Neon, darkness and shades of grey fills the screen in a film that’s practically the definition of cult
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Cast Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene Gabriel), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard Gabriel), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Ron Perlman (Nino Paolozzi), Kaden Leos (Benicio Gabriel)
Impassive and supernaturally calm, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) sits with the car engine purring. In this five-minute window he is the get-away driver who will go to any length. Outside of that, criminals are on their own. Its one of the simple rules he lives by. He never compromises. Until, of course, he finds something worth compromising for. That would be his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), trying to make ends meet while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. The Driver helps them – and feels compelled to go on helping them when newly released Standard (trying to go straight) does one more job to get out from under the thumb of his criminal friends. That last job is always the worst one isn’t it? Particularly when crime lords as ruthless as Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) are involved.
Drive won Refn the best director award at Cannes (after a huge standing ovation). It’s not hard to see why. This film is so overflowing with style, uncompromising cool and unreadable enigma it was practically a cult classic before it was even released. Layered in a mix of 70s and 80s chic – with its electric pink titles, John Carpenter-ish Los Angeles visuals and counter-culture smarts – it echoes cutting-edge crime drama from the punk years of Hollywood (it’s practically a remake of The Driver for starters!), by way of touches of Melville crime drama and Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Scored to a mix of ambient beats and electronic rock, it’s the dictionary definition of style.
It keeps you on your toes from the start. Its opening not only explores the Driver’s incredible skills (speed, manoeuvring, ingenious evasions and knowing when to go slow, he can do it all) it also sets us up for the whole film. Shot largely alongside the Driver in the car, we zip through streets and understand the determination (and hints of danger) under his impassive surface. That prologue is the whole movie in capsule – a careful wait, a sense of a fuse being list, touches of humour to distract us (the Driver’s precision with his gloves) and brilliant misdirection when his focused attention to listening to a football game on the radio pays off in spades when we see his plans revealed.
Much of the first 40 minutes carefully develops the Driver’s surprisingly contented life: his happy acquiescence in the racing dreams of his fixer and mechanic boss Shannon (an ingratiating Bryan Cranston), who the Driver likes so much he doesn’t care that Shannon regularly swindles him; a soft, unspoken half-romance with Irene (Carey Mulligan, truthful and with a strength beneath the vulnerability); and a big-brother bond with her son Benecio. In another world this could have been a film where a loner learns to make a connection and finds love.
But it ain’t that film. The troubles start with Standard’s release from prison. Skilfully played by Oscar Isaac as well-meaning but essentially hopeless, Standard’s problems become Irene and Benecio’s problems. That one last job goes south – as they always do – in an orgy of cross, double cross and increasingly graphic violence. And the burning propulsive energy that lies under Drive, just like that purring engine in the films opening, is let rip.
What we get in the second half is dark, nihilistic and violent. Oh, good Lord, is it violent. Bone crunchingly, skull shatteringly, blood spurtingly violent. Because when gangsters get pissed off, they play for real. And it turns out, when the Driver finds something to care about, he plays for real as well. Refn’s eye for violence is extremely well-judged. We see just enough for it to be horrifying, but the worst is done via sound and editing (the Driver’s almost unwatchable assault on a goon in a lift puts almost nothing on screen, but the squelches and crunches on the soundtrack leave nothing to the imagination).
Refn’s trick is to combine lashings of indie cool and ultra-violence with a deceptively simple story that allows plenty of scope for interpretation. Drive has a sort of mythic, Arthurian quest to it, with the Driver as a sort of knight errant, defending a damsel in distress. But it’s also a grim crime drama, with a man at its centre who brutally kills without a second thought. This all depends on the enigmatic Driver at its heart. No other actor alive can do unreadable impassivity like Ryan Gosling – this could almost be his signature role. He’s ice-cool and professional, but also rather child-like and gentle.
Is he a guy dragged down by his own worst impulses? His jacket has a large scorpion on its back, echoing the old fable of the frog and the scorpion. Rather than one or the other, the Driver feels like both in one. A frog who wants to carry everyone over the river, but whose poor instincts and capacity for violence acts as the scorpion that destroys him. Where does he come from? What is his past? The film ends with a series of enigmatic shots that, to my eyes, suggest a supernatural quality to him. I sometimes toy with the idea he’s a sort of fallen angel, constantly protecting the wrong people like he has a scorpion curse on him. Refn’s gift is to craft pulp with psychological intrigue.
Drive is a very cool film – and Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling’s careful playing gives it a lot of heart, just as Albert Brooks’ marvellously dangerous gangster gives it a sharp, unpredictable edge. It rips its eye through the screen, with pace, speed and iconic imagery, all splashed with a pop art cool. But it’s not just a celebration of style: it’s also a dark romance, a tragedy and an exploration of a character who may be his own devil or may not even be human at all. Either way, its intriguing and exciting. Can’t ask for much more than that.