It is an all too uncommon feeling when a film ends and you realize you are not yet ready to leave its world. This is the feeling I had when Drive ended, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film (and his first American one). It is a slick retro ride, filled with homage and influence, operating as a nostalgic demonstration of American genre filmmaking and oozing European sensibilities, complete with existentialist sleaze and minimalist touches. It is a hybrid creature that dabbles in a number of genres that are all in harmony through Refn’s infectious appreciation for using cinema to create mood and atmosphere.
Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, part of the class of ‘˜strong silent type’ who has popped up in many films as varied as The Man with No Name Trilogy, Le Samourai and Taxi Driver, to name a few. Through a newly found connection with neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and a series of unfortunate circumstances, The Driver gets himself caught up in a sticky situation which he ultimately takes control of via the unwavering conviction he displays once he has made the decision to protect.
Since the characters and story of Drive take a backseat to presentation, the film is told with simple efficiency. Drive is working in full-on archetypal territory and it is a clear purposeful choice. As much as Refn creates something evocative from a directorial point of view, I would argue that Gosling’s anchoring of the material provides an almost equally satisfying and necessary contribution. The Driver may belong to an archetype, but like many of his previous incarnations, Gosling (with the help of Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini) makes his version singular. His ability to emote layers through silence is not only impressive but transfixing. Gone is the hard masculinity one expects to find with this type of role. Even when taking into account the brutal acts of violence he commits, in large part he is seen as a child. This is clear through The Driver’s scenes with Irene’s son Benicio (Kaden Leos). The Driver is referred to as ‘˜Kid’ by several other characters. In one scene where he and Benicio are talking, another character shouts for ‘˜Kid’ to come over. Both man and child shuffle over in response.
Through careful observance, we get to know The Driver as he interacts with others. What gets him to lift his head, to verbally respond, intervene or snap at someone? Since Gosling keeps you watching with intent, we in turn care about the answers to these ‘˜what gets him to’ queries. The audience barely knows him but through his first interactions with Irene, it is easy to tell this is a situation outside of his comfort zone as he responds with passive hesitancy.
The scenes between The Driver and Irene are largely silent. Drive dips into heist territory at its start but primarily begins as a romance in its first third. Their scenes are unspoken and pure. And in a conscious choice to emphasis the silence over dialogue between the two, when they do speak, their communication lacks comparatively.
It is clear that Refn has been influenced at every turn. But it is not a hollow experience; far from it. Perhaps what impressed me the most about Drive is the smoothness with which Refn blends what is a clear unabashed love for both high and low art. He lets them bleed together in what can be succinctly described as effortless cool. There is a stable assuredness in every shot, every movement and every creative choice made here. One cannot help but want to revisit Drive and explore those choices, the motivations behind them and why they work as well as they do. This is confident filmmaking on display. The mere construction of it is something to behold.
Topping off this retro vision is Cliff Martinez’s score which is very clearly tipping its hat to 80’s synth Euro-pop, particularly Tangerine Dream with a delicate touch of Kraftwerk. At the point where the opening credits sequence enter with its splayed cursive hot pink font accompanied by Kavinsky’s ‘˜Nightcall’, it is practically begging for cinephiles to drool all over it with worship; Drive knows how cool it is and it is not afraid to show off. The lyrics of Martinez’s songs are just overt enough, amusingly walking a fine line between kitsch and corny.
Violence is used to great effect both in how much is shown and exactly when Refn and editor Mat Newman decide to show it. It has an unexpected jolt because it brings the mood-setting to a halt. Instead of making the violence part of the film’s identity like so many do (to widely varying degrees of success), here violence is used to interrupt the film’s sense of self, existing as a combative force
There are two characters that make Drive rewarding as a piece of storytelling. One is the Driver and the other is Bernie as played by Albert Brooks. Bernie is in many ways The Driver’s opposite; he largely communicates by telling stories; by speaking. What makes Bernie startling is that the film first humanizes him and then shows us what he is capable of. Brooks has been given a juicy part and he really makes the most of it; it is a terrific performance.
If I have one problem with Drive it is that with archetypes come thankless female characters, and as a result, thankless roles for its actresses. Where Gosling and Brooks (and to a lesser degree Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston and particularly Oscar Issac) make something of their character types, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks are basically pretty chess pieces within the story. Unfortunately archetypes mean traditional and thus archaic parts for women as Mulligan is there to be protected and Hendricks is there to be a conniving moll.
Style over substance is worth it when there is substance within the style; and that is what Drive has. It tells a simple story with easily identifiable characters, functioning primarily as an exercise in ‘˜coolness’. But it creates its own world through a mish-mash of influences, thereby forming its own recognizable identity that becomes addictive. With Drive, Refn represents cinema at its most assured plowing into the heart of genre filmmaking.