Sporting hot-pink opening titles Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly anticipated Drive kicks off to a blaring 80s-esque soundtrack like some kind of long-lost and dislocated Miami Vice episode. But if you’re thinking “oh shit, this is gonna be a lesser Michael Mann style douche-fest” that is where the similarities start and end. Instead, Refn – director of such brutishly visceral spectacles as the Pusher trilogy and 2008 shocker Bronson – creates a noirish caper possessed of the director’s characteristic taste for violence whilst being constrained inside an almost meditative dramatic structure; full of silent, meaningful glances, contrasting visual and emotional tones, and an unsentimental contemplation of Los Angeles and its byways.
Gosling, as with his character (simply entitled “Driver”), totally inhabits the cool, calm centre of this picture. Variously clad in signature scorpion jacket, grease stained overalls, or stunt driver protective gear, the driver drifts through the action a man apart. There is no denying Refn’s purposeful and compelling hand or Gosling’s magnetism even in the face of such an emotionally restrained role. At once wistful, longing, even as he displays a self-awareness of his inability to truly connect and assimilate into the world around him; the heroic stranger that rides, or in this case drives, off into the sunset.
Gosling’s mastery is combined with a stellar if underrated support cast including Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as the Driver’s nurturing uncle substitute cum inept business partner Shannon, plus Ron Pearlman and Albert Brooks in standout performances as syndicated crime’s Jewish odd couple. Probably the weakest character to my mind is Carey Mulligan’s damsel in distress Irene – though this is not to say Mulligan doesn’t carry her end, more that Irene appears to have the least depth written into her part despite sharing significant screen time with Gosling.
Visually arresting, in Drive Refn contrasts over-bright, slightly washed out LA days with the city’s slick, yellow hued nights. The director skilfully composes clearly considered lighting choices with mundane ordinary locations; the sense of drama heightened by the purposeful mismatch in emotional versus visual tone. Picture quality is fantastic, the director primarily employing the Arri Alexa; the same camera with which Lars von Trier shot his stunning 2011 work Melancholia. Likewise, the filmmakers use the soundtrack in contrasting ways; at times perfectly filling out the mood onscreen, at others jarring and unsettling. I personally found the musical choices, if good, to be a mite intrusive a little too often. And though, with time to reflect, I think I see the tonal point being made I’d be inclined towards a less trigger happy demeanour when handling the literal and stylistic volume knob.
I found Drive to be more at odds with itself tonally than I would have liked; sometimes it played like a classic crime caper and at other pushed into more abstract and intense moral/emotional/dramatic territory evoking the work of French auteur Bruno Dumont. Due to these switches many may find Drive a perplexing beast, with its ostensibly noir-thriller plot delivered with an economy of dialogue and set-piece action. Yet there is undeniable appeal in its purity of style and execution. Rest assured, Refn & Gosling’s cinematic baby is by no means the Fast & Furious clone *some* have expected; it is SO much more. A considered take on a love-worn American folktale refracted through the lens of an obvious love for genre cinema coupled with a very European sensibility. Drive is set to be one of 2011’s cult hits and quite possibly a very popular one at that.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: R18 – Graphic violence and offensive language
Local release date: 03 Nov 2011
Duration: 100 mins
Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn (2010)
With: Ryan Gosling , Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman , Bryan Cranston , Christina Hendricks , Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks, & Tina Huang
Distributor: Rialto Distribution