A Hollywood stunt driver double-jobbing as a wheelman falls foul of some unsavoury wise guys following a robbery gone awry. It’s a plot précis which evokes the vapid, teen tripe theatrics of the “Fast and Furious” franchise or some god awful car-centric Nicolas Cage paycheck movie. Cue the IQ reducing, boner-inducing thrills of the automotive action genre. Boorish macho posturing, scantily clad fuck-dolls coquettishly tittering as the camera salaciously segues from their toned buttocks to the contours of a Dodge Challenger, steroid enhanced Neanderthal’s delivering eruptions of roid-rage as performances and lots of shiny stuff getting blown up.
Despair not my friends, instead rejoice and give thanks to the gods of torque and engine grease for Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” is anything but derivative. Rather it’s a sublime art house butterfly encased in a multiplex-friendly chrysalis that will leave the boy-racer brigade feeling distinctly short-changed.
Opening with pastel-pink titles and the dulcet strains of an atavistic ‘80s style score more resonant of some vintage teen-angst flick ala John Hughes than a hardboiled thriller, you know you’re in for something special. Just as the classic high school dramas of the 1980’s venerated the inscrutable, charismatic loner as the apotheosis of cool so too does Refn, letting his camera soak up every equanimous inch of leading man Ryan Gosling.
There’s a fetishistic, borderline homoerotic reverence with which the camera greedily drinks in our star. Exuding an assuredness that harkens back to a bygone era where the cinematic beau idéal of masculinity was epitomised by the likes of McQueen, Dean and Brando, Gosling owns this film and by god does he know it. Toothpick dangling from the side of mouth, resplendent in a white satin scorpion-embroidered racing jacket, hands clad in a pair of dark brown leather driving gloves, he’s glacially cool and smooth as liquid silk. In stark contrast to the effete metrosexual Adonises currently passing muster in cinema today the driver is a gloriously retrograde hero, a man’s man refreshingly unbeholden to PC convention, the kind of guy who’d never slap a gal...unless she deserved it.
Being a character of few words, outwardly stoic and reserved, it’s all then down to subtle gesticulation and Gosling’s wonderfully expressive eyes that flit between melancholic to suddenly aflame with intensity. A towering presence, he emblazons himself upon every frame and delivers an utterly captivating, multi-textured performance. One feels that despite the driver’s seemingly imperturbable poise, behind the comb-over and matinee idol looks, there’s a reservoir of hurt and that can only be assuaged by the love of a good woman. Selling this sense of vulnerability is Gosling’s crowning achievement.
Crashing cars by day as the camera’s roll whilst mixing in the seedy criminal milieu of Los Angele’s by night, seeking the illicit thrill of the chase as he ferries stick-up men to and fro, the driver is a man alone. The presence of his neighbour, single mother Irene (Carey Mulligan), becomes a ray of light in his ascetic existence. Their burgeoning romance is a pleasure to watch, naturalistic and in no way seeming a mere contrivance of the script, Mulligan delivering an affecting and wholly understated performance.
But alas for our star crossed-lovers, Irene’s feckless ex-con of a husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) re-emerges with some of his old criminal associates intent on the repayment of a certain debt. An ultimatum is given. One last job or there’ll be dire repercussions for wife and child. Unable to countenance harm befalling his surrogate family, the Driver offers his services. Things go awry.
Defying convention at every turn, bursting with left-field tonal broadsides and stylistic flourishes, Refn has crafted a wonderful piece of strange. It’s a pop-bubblegum, neo-noir romance, car-crime genre coalescence that really shouldn’t work but does - stunningly so. Full of elegiac tracking shots, hypnotic Steadicam glides and sumptuous slo-mo there’s an oneiric quality to "Drive's" neon-bathed aesthetic. From atmospheric aerial shots capturing urban jungle of LA at night to the soft, ethereal warmth of the photography as Driver brings Irene and the kid for a trip, the film is exceptionally handsome.
Pretty without being ostentatious, touching yet bearing nihilistic undertones, the flick is not unlike its titular hero, a glorious enigma. We never see the actual heists go down, never leaving the confines of our protagonist’s car. Refn generates maximum tension from the wailing of a police siren drawing ever near, the ticking of watch, a claustrophobic dolly shot coming to rest upon an anxious face, the static becomes dynamic, inaction elevated to the thrilling. Even the flick’s standout chase eschews typical Hollywood brashness. It’s subtly brilliant throughout, a tenderness and darkness permeating the narrative in equal measure.
Despite being eminently likeable and displaying a capacity to love there’s a wonderful creepiness to Gosling’s Driver, a frisson of latent psychopathy about him. Although a stand-up guy you can’t help but feel something isn’t quite right, a repressed rage suddenly manifesting itself in outbursts of head-stomping, shotgun-blasting ultralviolence. Killing comes easy to him. Indeed at times he’s more resonant of some Giallo killer replete with sinisterly creaking leather gloves as Refn underscores moments of threat and slow motion carnage with rumbling discordant synth which wouldn’t be out of place in a slice of 1970’s Euro-schlock.
Watch as the Driver dons a prosthetic stunt mask and stalks his unsuspectingly prey before emerging from the darkness, intermittently illuminated by the flash of a nearby lighthouse, delivering a showpiece death to his victim that would make Argento proud. Hell, Refn’s even got some Riz Ortolani on the soundtrack.
“Drive” is a unique vision superbly executed. Candy for the eyeballs, acoustic ambrosia for the ears and with enough thematic complexity and nuance as to be stimulating for the noggin, it’s the reason you go to the movies.