Drive is a stylish, entertaining film that I should like more than I do (though I like it quite a lot). Neo-noir trappings, existential angst, an alienated hero, shots of Los Angeles streets at night, splendidly evil bad guys, visceral violence, a strong cast…this is exactly the sort of doomed-romantic, loner-hero crime film that I enjoy, so…what’s not to like? Alright, if you push me, I’ll single out the script, which is overly-familiar and has an outrageous coincidence as one of its main foundation pillars. That, and an awfully annoying soundtrack which spoils numerous scenes via its trite juxtaposition of music and image.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take Drive 99 times out of 100 over the usual bland cinema fodder we’re served, but I somehow expected…more. Clearly the film had the potential to be even better than it is, which is always a sad realisation.
Ryan Gosling (character unnamed, although his pal refers to him as “kid”) is a mechanic, motion picture-stunt driver, and free-lance “wheelman” for various petty crooks. His employer Shannon (Bryan Cranston, who’s in everything these days) hopes “legitimate businessman” Bernie (Albert Brooks) will finance a race car with the kid as the driver, providing them all with a ticket out of the small-time. The kid falls in love with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young waitress who’s supporting her young son while her husband serves a prison term. It’s a quintessential film noir set-up: if you go out on a limb for a dame, you’re asking for trouble. Irene’s hubby gets out and is pressured into participating in a robbery to pay off his debts; the kid pushes his way into the deal to keep Irene from being used as a hostage to ensure her husband’s cooperation. But the robbery goes wrong (don’t they all?), Irene’s spouse is shot to death, and the kid is left holding the bag (fortunately, the bag contains one million dollars; unfortunately, that means he’s now a target).
Cobbled together from a variety of disparate elements—classic film noir, Taxi Driver, nouvelle vague, ’80s film-style (Bernie, referring to his own movie producing career in that decade, saying his action films were referred to as “European”-style)—Driver (not to be confused with Walter Hill’s The Driver, although there are some similarities, including a taciturn, unnamed protagonist who drives getaway cars for a living) is expertly assembled and effectively paced. It starts out deliberately, then the tension and violence escalate. The opening sequence is a blueprint for the rest of the film, building tension and then exploding into a final car chase.
The delineation of the character of the driver is similarly structured. He’s got no back-story, few personal possessions (except a tacky satin jacket with a golden scorpion embroidered on the back), and only one friend, gimpy Shannon. A man of few words, the kid charms Irene and her son with his caring, pleasant demeanour. He’s hurt when Irene reveals her husband’s imminent release from jail (cue one of those damn sappy songs, argh), and when a former customer imprudently accosts him in public, the anger and potential for violence hidden beneath his baby-faced facade are exposed.
Then, to save his own life, protect Irene, and (eventually) avenge his friend Shannon, “the kid” hacks and slashes his way through a mob of sleazy villains (perhaps, in retrospect, it might have been better for his relationship with Irene if he hadn’t stomped a guy’s head to mush in an elevator while she was right there watching…I’m just saying…). Ryan Gosling plays most of the film with a blank look on his face—ironically, late in the movie he dons a full-head mask which is only marginally more expressionless—but his harmless, calm appearance (presumably with an attitude to match) makes his character’s transition into uber-violence even more shocking.
Perhaps the driver gets along so well with Irene and her son Benicio because they’re also surprisingly taciturn. None of them use two words when one word—or, more often, just a look—would suffice. In contrast, Irene’s husband Standard, and villains Nino (Ron Perlman), Cook, and (ultimately) Bernie are positively garrulous. Is Drive trying to give us life lessons such as “mind your own business,” “don’t fall in love,” and “keep your mouth shut?” Admirable sentiments, all of them, and well worth remembering.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has a few stylistic affectations, although for the most part—aside from those dumb musical interludes, gah—these are easy to take and Drive is generally a pleasure to watch. Refn likes to freeze or at least stretch time unrealistically: not to be confused with creating suspense in real time (for instance, as the driver is waiting for his “clients” to emerge from the establishments they are robbing), these sequences prolong a particular moment in time or an action (the driver and Irene kissing in an elevator, for example). Refn also has a Scorsese/Tarantino-like penchant for sudden, explicit and disturbing violent explosions, often involving sharp objects or blunt objects, although punches, slaps, kicks and stomps are also utilised when no appropriate tool is at hand.
The technical aspects of Drive are satisfactory, with especially nice photography, both in lighting and composition. As much as I’ve complained about the hipster-infused soundtrack, it’s really only the hackneyed manner (could this be intentionally ironic on the filmmaker’s part? Uh-oh, mind is blown) in which the songs are employed that bothers me. The songs themselves aren’t horrible, nor is the underscoring elsewhere. The performances are also fine: Drive assembled a fairly small cast of people with interesting faces and some acting talent, then gave them a script with some clever nuances of characterisation, with pleasing results.
You know, over the course of writing this review, I’ve come to realise that I actually liked Drive somewhat more than I may have implied in the opening paragraph. It’s a flawed work (but aren’t they all? I’ve yet to see a perfect film), and it gets by mostly on mood and style rather than thematic content, but in the final estimation, I’ve got to admit: this is a smooth and accomplished work, I enjoyed it, and I’d watch it again in a heartbeat.