Drive is a mesmerising, beautiful and incredibly violent film. It don’t think there’s been anything quite like it for a long while, although it did remind me, at times, of the works of Gaspar Noe, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriquez and Stanley Kubrick. It is actually directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, the director behind the atrocious biopic Bronson. He also directed the Pusher trilogy, and, believe it or not, an episode of Agatha Christie’s Marple. But this film, which won him the Best Director award at Cannes earlier this year, may just be his masterpiece.
Drive is more Taxi Driver than Agatha Christie. It is a crime drama, a searing romance, an action movie, a noir thriller, and a revenge story, all rolled into one. It’s a stupendous, audacious and at times gruelling experience. Just like in Bronson, Refn does not blink when characters start to do atrocious things to each other. The camera stays with the violence. We’ll come to this in more detail later.
Ryan Gosling, who seems to be on some kind of career high at the moment, plays a stunt car driver for film companies – a man hired to smash up the car he’s behind the wheel of and walk away without a scratch. He also works at a garage. But his third job is the most interesting. He drives cars for criminals. He will be at a venue for five minutes. He stays in the car for that five minutes, and if the crooks get in he will drive them from the scene of crime. If, however, his clock ticks beyond those five minutes, he drives away. At the start of the film, we see him slickly drive a pair of robbers for safety, deftly losing police cars and a pursuing helicopter. This is a man who will do bad stuff for money, but somehow he is strangely likable.
This is partly down to Gosling’s performance. He is incredibly sexy in the role, and when he gets to know his attractive neighbour (played by the brilliant Carrey Mulligan), there is a scene where he looks at her quietly, with a calm, steady gaze. She has his jacket in her hand, ready to pass it for him so he can go back to his flat next door. But for a while he doesn’t. They just look at each other. It’s one of the most sensual scenes in a film this year, and yet there is no sex in the movie whatsoever. We don’t even get to see Ryan with his clothes off (those who want that can pay to endure Crazy Stupid Love). It’s all about sexual tension, and this film is super-charged to the max.
Perhaps this is a troubling trait, as this is also one of 2011’s most violent movies. But anyone attempting to argue that this film sexualises or glamorises brutality is obtusely ignoring the way the film presents such scenes. All moments of blood and gore (for there are quite a few, when Ryan gets caught up in Carrey’s husband’s gangster dealings) are shocking and repulsive. Where Bronson revelled in viciousness and violence, Drive turns the tables, and makes sure we are in no doubt: what our hero (or anti-hero) does is horrible. Really horrible. Some may find some of the scenes offensive. I certainly found them hard to watch. But this is the point – they are repugnant because of their detail, rather than salacious. This is crucial, as my main criticism with Refn’s other work was that it rather enjoyed extreme nastiness too much. This film manages to make violent scenes beautiful, poetic, and horrifying. Such a feat is rarely achieved with such skill and confidence, and I applaud Refn for doing it so well this time around.
Drive is not perfect. When the drama cuts away from Gosling, and focuses on the activities of the criminals out for his blood (it’s a long story, but it all links back to a messed-up job he did for Mulligan’s convict husband) , the dialogue occasionally failed to convince me. There’s some nice characterisation from Ron Pearlman, but the script, adapted from James Sallis’s novel by Hosseini Amini, is at its best when it is focused on our leading man (who, as it happens, doesn’t really say much at all).
The parallels to Taxi Driver, as I touched on previously, are apparent, although Gosling is perhaps more of a young Marlon Brando than Robert De Niro. His charisma is astonishing. He stole the show in Crazy Stupid Love, he made depressing love story Blue Valentine a worthwhile watch, and he’s set to wow audiences again with upcoming political thriller The Ides of March. Maybe he’s doing all this to atone for The Notebook.
Drive doesn’t exactly break new ground, but it does remind film lovers what it was like when the ground broke originally. It defies convention through a mixture of themes and by the blending of styles. Refn may not be a flawless talent – it has taken time for him to find a project that suits his directorial approach – but now that he has, it was well worth the wait. Drive is classy, cool, and packs one hell of a punch. This is red-hot cinema of the highest level.
Drive (2011) directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, is distributed by Icon Film Distributors, Certificate 18. Prospective viewers may wish to read the consumer advice from the British Board of Film Classificiation before seeing the film.