Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive plots an unconventional course through action thriller territory.
Take that big chase for example. Ryan Gosling driving a getaway car for a pair of thieves while most of the Los Angeles police department pursue him by car and helicopter. All of it captured in such clear crisp tones that it amplifies reality in a way few similar scenes ever have.
After this opening, Drive switches gears and takes a leisurely but tension-filled stroll through the back-alleys of classic film noir, grafting on a hero worthy of a modern action opus. Ironically releasing the same week as the dim-witted and thematically deaf remake of Straw Dogs, Drive is the real spiritual successor of Sam Peckinpah; crafting a thoughtful spectacle of brutality wedged in between a tale of isolation and quiet solitude.
Drive is most concerned with its characters and the way they navigate the minefield of the story. The action is there to serve them, not the other way around. After a haphazard summer of junky popcorn movies, this concept feels almost revolutionary. Refn, who has been confidently building as an artistic force to be reckoned with, springs to life here and creates a world so moody, textured and tactile that it’s impossible to look away even in the slower segments. The entire trip is fueled by the performance of Ryan Gosling, who takes an enigmatic archetype and turns him into a person we can believe in and root for. This is impressive when you consider the greatest character definition we get is that Driver’s occupation is the same as his name, and that he has a strict code of conduct that one day he will break. Everything else unfolds in the course of the picture, nuances of character defined and expressed as action and reaction.
The world of Drive—an sprawling Los Angeles that contains the sunlit world of Hollywood stunt racing and the twilight streets of a seedy criminal underbelly—is populated with a host of interesting characters. At their center is Gosling’s Driver. He is mostly a mystery to us. We don’t know much about his origins, his aptitude, or his personal life. There are a few details planted that take root and grow as the film does; he’s a getaway driver for people who need, well, to get away in a hurry. This he does after his legit day job as a Hollywood stuntman, and then later still, he takes long, night-time drives through the city at a slower, more meditative pace. He has rules and boundaries, and is mostly closed off to people. There are, as always, two exceptions to that rule that cause him trouble and propel the central events of the story.
First, there’s Shannon (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston), the fallen professional racer who manages Driver as a stuntman and uses his garage to help outfit the younger man’s illegal adventures. When Shannon tries to break into the legit world of auto racing with Driver as his ringer, he ends up borrowing funds from crime boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), who with his devious partner Nino (Ron Perlman), are not men to be trifled with. There’s also single mother Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio ( Kaden Leos) who live down the hall from Driver’s spartan apartment, waiting on a husband who will shortly be home from a long term in prison. With Irene, Driver shows glimpses of a warmer softer side, the only hints at longing and yearning for human companionship that we, the audience, get. When the husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) comes back to the homestead and runs afoul of shady figures from his past, Driver finds himself stepping up for a job that goes against his rigid rules to protect the family. This is a telling gesture; he stands to get nothing from this other than the promise of safety for Standard and his clan. He, and those around him, stand to lose much. Bernie and Nino figure heavily into the trouble that follows, with others thrown in for extra threat, and we are propelled through a well-oiled machine of intrigue, violence, and exciting derring-do seen through the glorious, shadowy direction of Refn.
I mentioned film noir earlier. Clearly, this is a big inspiration on both the novel by James Sallis and Refn’s direction of Hossein Amini’s script. Visually, this is a dark and lovely picture, juxtaposing worlds of brightness and fairytale dreams of better days with the night-drenched corriders of the character’s reality. Refn, who used violence to move along the fractured plots of his previous films, Bronson and Valhalla Rising, does a more nuanced job of incorporating the gritty and gut-wrenching moments into his story, sometimes achieving a dichotomy that flirts with the existential . There’s a scene between Driver and an unfortunate thug in an elevator that sits in such close proximity to a gentle kiss with Mulligan that it casts both events in a different light.
If the film walks the walk of noir, it also manages to talk the talk, although Refn isn’t as interested in homage as creating a separate beast. He starts with the moral convictions of Driver, whose code is closer to a comic-book hero like Bruce Wayne than the wobbly, diminished values of an Edward G. Robinson sad sack, and then extends this humanity to every other character. There’s a simplicity to Irene and her relationship with Driver that smacks of innocence and compassion, and even Standard, the returning husband, isn’t a bad man. He loves his family, suspects but accepts Driver, and only returns to crime when the circumstances have spiraled from his control. Bernie, the crime lord, granted a kind of empathy by Brooks’ carefully timed performance, is also a man of quirks and not easily read contradictions. His code of values is tested by Nino’s barbarism, which in turn has been fostered by bitterness at his outsider status amongst Bernie’s crime family. Perlman rarely gets to sink his teeth into a script or character this juicy, and he relishes every bite.
The movie works best as a kind of character study in the vein of Melville’s Le Samourai, that austere classic about a hitman driven by his code. Despite the artistry put forward by the entire ensemble and creative team, it couldn’t work as it does without Gosling. He’s been a revelation as of late, working more than most of his colleagues and refusing to be fenced in by expectations, creating characters instead of performances. Here, he’s been given a man who has as many defining traits as a one-note action stereotype in a Michael Bay movie, and what he does with the negative spaces adds dimension and density to the character. What Driver doesn’t say, what he doesn’t do, and his discarding of conventional things others yearn for, speak more loudly than the limited dialogue he has been given. Leave it to Refn to redefine the parameters of the action thriller by focusing on those unseen things hiding in the shadows beyond our reach. There’s the real tip of the hat to noir.