When European, “art-house” directors tackle genre movie material I get a little nervous, especially when the filmmaker wins the Best Director prize at the Cannes film festival: I don’t want them ruining my B-movie thrills with their fancy “depth” and “symbolism”. So for occasions like these I carry my pretentiousness-detector (an expensive piece of kit I might add) into the screening with me. Luckily, the needle barely quivered in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, unlike in Joe Wright’s snooty Hanna, when the device exploded. Drive is anything but pretentious, and the art-house tag actually does the film a disservice: this is more Quentin Tarantino than Jane Campion.
Adapted by British screenwriter Hossein Amini from a novella by James Sallis, Drive stars Gosling as a driver with no name (listed in the credits as “Driver”, although I’m going with Clint McQueen) whose day job is a stunt driver for Hollywood action films, but by night he moonlights as a getaway driver in and around the underbelly of LA. He explains to his criminal clients that he will give them five minutes to do what they have to do, and in that time he belongs to them, but outside of that five minutes they’re on their own (curiously, this is also my approach to sex). A boy in my school called Duncan claimed he could do handbrake turns into parking spaces, but he was only 12 so I’m starting to suspect he might have been lying. Gosling’s Driver is the real deal however, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see a character drive so intelligently in the film’s minimalist opening chase scene: weaving, reversing, quickly parking and killing the lights, and generally out-thinking the cops to evade them. Fruit stalls and cardboard boxes can breathe a sigh of relief, the driving in this film is less fast and furious, and more precise and calculating, although The Precise and the Calculating would be a terrible film title.
Driver also works part time as a mechanic for friend/father figure Shannon (Cranston) who in turn is a little out of his depth in his business dealings with two gangsters (Perlman and the urbane yet intimidating Brooks, nicely cast against type). Driver then begins a nearly wordless flirtation with his neighbour Irene (Mulligan) and her adorable son (the drive he takes them down one of LA’s dried out, concrete waterways is one of the film’s more heartwarming moments). Things start to go wrong when Irene’s husband, the brilliantly named Standard Gabriel, is released from prison. He and Driver seem like they might come to blows over Irene, but instead Driver’s sense of decency leads him to to agree to help Standard with “one last job”, a heist that will get him out of a debt he incurred to gangsters while in prison. You won’t be surprised to hear that said heist goes completely TITS UP.
The attraction between Gosling and Mulligan is palpable, and their wordless glances and smiles form the emotional core of the film. Gosling excels as Driver, he’s the strong silent type, almost rivaling me for charisma, and he shoots straight onto my man-crush list, but he’s not exactly brooding: he smiles quite a lot early on and is good with kids. He’s almost too good to be true in fact, and you might think this was some kind of vanity piece for Gosling were it not for the brutal (and I mean brutal) acts of violence he commits later in the film. The film hints at a darkness within, presenting him later on as a borderline psycho, that jeopardises any future he might have with Irene.
The violence and gore in Drive is extremely explicit and will come as a shock to some viewers (judging by the nervous laughter I heard in the screening I attended). Personally I didn’t have a problem with the stabbing, artery slicing and head stomping here – it serves as the explosive punctuation to some scenes of unbearable suspense – but your mileage may vary (I hate myself). In the past I have criticised films such as I Saw The Devil for not bringing enough to the table to warrant such graphic scenes, and yet here I am, giving a pass to a proudly shallow genre flick like this for the same thing. Intellectually speaking I’ve backed myself into a corner ... HEY WHAT’S THAT BEHIND YOU *runs out of the room*.
As good as the cast is, this a film that belongs to Refn and his technical team. They take a heist-gone-wrong plot you feel like you’ve seen hundreds of times before and, thanks to the creative stamp they put on it, make something you’ve never seen before. Key contributions include Newton Thomas Sigel’s sultry, neon-tinged LA cinematography and Clint Martinez’s pulsing, 80’s style, synth score. I couldn’t wait to download the fuck out of the soundtrack when I got home and I’ve been cruising around looking pretty cool in my 1.4 litre Renault Clio ever since (oh you know what, fuck you guys, it’s pretty nippy away from the lights I’ll have you know).
The cumulative effect of all this is tense, haunting and so intoxicating I was probably over the legal limit when I drove home afterwards. It’s like early Michael Mann, or Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA, but it’s very much its own beast too: Refn employs slow-motion and an incredibly bold use of music to striking effect. One scene set in an elevator goes from suspenseful to goosebump-inducingly romantic to sickeningly violent in a matter of seconds. Refn’s staging and editing instincts are masterful, but completely without pretension, it’s all in the service of the things we go to see genre films for: atmosphere, thrills, romance ... and suspense that comes not from the heist itself, but the agonising wait in the car outside.
It’s only in the film’s latter stages that the B-grade material starts to catch up with Refn, resulting in a string of brutal revenge kills that start to feel slightly generic, but it’s a minor flaw. I’m still giving the film 5 stars, and there’s nothing you can do about it! *guns engine, speeds off flipping you the bird, gets pulled over for doing 36 in a 30 zone, three points on license*.