Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn’s first collaboration debuted at Cannes to rave reviews. After a great advertising campaign and uniformly positive advance word of mouth, Drive has finally hit UK screens.
Gosling plays the nameless movie stunt-driver who works as a getaway driver on the side. When his lovely neighbour Irene’s (Carey Mulligan) husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is coerced into committing a robbery by some local crooks, he agrees to drive on the condition that Standard’s debt is paid. But when things go wrong, Irene and her young son are put in harm’s way and Driver will stop at nothing to protect them.
Drive is a film that’s steeped in cinematic nostalgia. It’s a heady mix of different genre staples and periods that Refn has brought together to create this bewitching but full-blooded thriller. From the lipstick-pink credits font and the breathy, synth-heavy soundtrack, it’s clear that the 80s are a big influence. But in its plot, spare use of dialogue, and especially its characters it’s also very much a classic noir. There’s Driver’s mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston), with his limp, chain-smoking, and old connections to mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). There’s both the demure damsel in distress (Irene) and the curvy femme fatale (Blanche, played by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks). There’s the story of a man who finds himself thrown into the murky LA criminal underworld.
Then there’s the Driver himself. At first glance he seems like a typical genre movie hero, a man of few words who gets the job done. He even has his props (toothpick, driving gloves, scorpion jacket) and his set of rules for clients. But Gosling’s wounded puppy-dog eyes suggest an emotional immaturity that makes him even more dangerous. Refn plays with our expectations of a hero: just what kind of a person is willing to commit both these selfless acts of heroism and violence? And he certainly does commit some acts of violence.
Refn’s got a history of putting bloody violence on screen with Bronson, Pusher, and Valhalla Rising, and Drive is no exception. While the camera doesn’t dwell on the gore, the characters certainly do, and the brief moments are vivid and gruesome enough to shock you and stay with you. But Drive is as much about the quiet moments as it is about the fights and the car chases. The action is shot and edited with clinical precision, and Refn’s vision of Los Angeles at night is beautifully reminiscent of Michael Mann. There are moments of great beauty and cinematic romance in amongst the fountains of blood. There’s also a very dark sense of humour at work here, as the director isn’t afraid to acknowledge the silliness of the genre even as he makes brutal use of its stereotypes.
The actors are superb. Mulligan (Never Let Me Go) and Cranston (Breaking Bad) add vital warmth, Perlman (Hellboy) gives a wonderfully odious turn, and Brooks (Broadcast News) plays against type to chilling effect as the softly spoken gangster. But it’s Gosling’s show and he gives a bravely understated but truly memorable performance. He says little but those unblinking stares speak volumes.
Drive achieves what so many films strive for: a fresh spin on an old genre. There’s a razor sharp wit and intelligence at work, but it’s also fully committed to being a gripping thriller.
Verdict: A strong contender for film of 2011. Drive is a darkly beautiful, slyly funny film that’s soaked in cinematic history. And blood. Also, what a soundtrack.