Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)


Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose). Screenplay by Hossein Amini. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Rating: 18. Running time: 100 minutes.

You will no doubt be surprised to learn that what looks like an average action-packed B-movie is in fact getting some serious hype amongst critics. With the arrival of Drive, however, that is exactly what we have on our hands. Like Shutter Island of last year, this is a film completely comfortable with sitting as an unadventurous genre piece. Neither seek originality in any respect, instead opting for joy in replicating recognisable and revered filmmaking traditions. Drive, then, is a hip neo-noir most happy to pay homage to Lynch and Cronenberg, and if the former David is best described as weird and the latter as violent, Drive can easily be called a fusion of the two.

Let’s start with the violence, which people are talking about so much for a good reason; namely, it’s exceptionally awful. The word ‘fuck’ may have been diluted by overuse to becoming practically void of impact, and our minds are now seemingly immune to cinematic gunfire and fist fights in a similar way. As I mentioned, however, Cronenberg is probably the key director to violate this rule of thumb, but with Drive Refn is giving him a run for his dosh. It’s not frightening violence, nor is it nauseating. It’s all too hilariously explicit and excessive for that. But to perceive it this way isn’t at all to be casual about it – we know that if John Woo’s Hard Boiled gunfights were ‘balletic,’ this is the bone-crunching antithesis, and what we see is damn shocking. But there’s only so many times you can see a gun induce blood-splattering reminiscent of ultra-explosive red paintballs before it becomes totally detached and cinematic, and this is the evident intention here. It’s the Pulp Fiction approach, and, if you’ll forgive the pun, you’ve just gotta ride with it.

Insofar as Lynch is concerned, his influence becomes obvious once the scene is set and the plot unfolds, and all of a sudden these serious, odd-looking men in suits are bridging the gap between our normal characters and a vicious underworld. The gangster plans begin, the crime becomes increasingly serious, and before we know it Drive has constructed its own parallel reality in which the weird and dangerous is the normal, and our elusive protagonist is navigating not only the streets of LA, but a web of theft and murder that makes the film firmly noir and not the plain action flick the trailer suggests.

Our ‘elusive protagonist,’ of course, is Gosling, who can now add to his list of seemingly effortless rapid transitions a move from the suave stud in Crazy, Stupid, Love to the modern psychopath we see here. He has the Travis Bickle feel about him (and to stress this is surely another purpose of the blood splattering), but where the crusade in Taxi Driver is the vigilantism of a mad citizen confusingly concerned about scum in his society, Gosling’s nameless character here just cares for a neighbour, Irene, and her son. When that woman is Carey Mulligan and she smiles at you this warmly, mind, who would dare feel justified in blaming him for shortsightedness?

The situation comes about because of the past troubles of Irene’s husband catching up with her, and our ‘driver’ goes from being a part-time movie stunt man and getaway driver to a full-blown murdering nut on a mission, intent on preserving the mother-son relationship at any cost to himself. The reason suggested is simply because he’s human, and despite a disturbing affection for vehicles his life is seemingly given a spark by his interactions with her, and he himself recognises this.

The film’s magic is clearly supposed to materialise around this plot point: we have a character to deal with who is in love with an all too cute woman, who oozes with coolness merely by virtue of his work and who is even apparently heroic in his moralistic skull-stampings. And this all goes without mentioning it’s the star of Crazy, Stupid, Love gone senile that we’re watching.

That this mixture pays off is indisputable. This multi-drug of crime, romance and action against a noir background, which gifts us a new iconic madman in the process, undoubtedly works a treat as entertainment, and with the addition of Refn’s coherent and cool stylistic themes the result is also undeniably great art. It’s not a classic you’ll be dying to return to, but while it lasts it is everything you could ask for and more from a film about a man who drives.

One Response to “Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)”

  1. I feel a little bit guilty saying that Drive needed more driving. When the action comes it is tense and artfully done without shying away from the extreme violence, but that all starts to go away as soon as the characters start talking, or sighing and looking at each other. Nice review.

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