Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Hossein Amini, James Sallis (novel)
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
It is rare that the director of a B-movie wins the big prize at Cannes, but it is a testament to the quality of Drive that Nicolas Winding Refn managed to pull it off. Of course, Drive is not a B-movie in the strictest sense – it has a sizeable budget and features two of the hottest young stars in the business – but it certainly has a B-movie feel. That is not a criticism at all. It could just as easily be described as an arthouse blockbuster, but B-movie is more affectionate, and closer to the spirit of the film.
The trailer implied that Drive had little more to offer than fast and furious action, but Refn uses and subverts typical driving films to great effect. It opens with a getaway, not your usual drive fast dodge traffic blow up road tankers kind of getaway, but one that sees the Driver (Ryan Gosling) favour stealth and ingenuity over his powerful engine. The Driver is an enigmatic figure, silent, sensitive and psychotic. He is a getaway driver, a stunt driver, a racing driver, a mechanic – whatever you need him to be.
After completing the job, the Driver meets his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her young son. He fixes her car and gives her a ride back to their Hollywood apartments. A simple relationship develops; he stares and smiles, she smiles back. They barely speak. We find out that her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in jail, but later he is let out. His past catches up with him and he is badly beaten up. The Driver decides to help him out for the sake of Irene, a decision which lands him in bigger trouble than he could have imagined.
The plot is interesting enough but takes a back seat. Events happen but most are disconnected and underdeveloped. Essentially, Drive is an exercise in style. It’s saturated in it. Everything is washed over with a retro eighties twist, from the bright pink titles and synth-heavy soundtrack to the cartoonish ultra-violence on show. It even has a montage. It’s intensely theatrical, especially towards the end. Refn plays with light, plays with slow motion; you get the sense he had a lot of fun with Drive. The prevailing sense of unreality also creates one of the best depictions of Hollywood in recent years.
Gosling carries the film superbly with an up-to-date version of the old-fashioned antihero. He is extremely dangerous but possesses simple charisma and a heart of gold; he is the type of character you can root for. The other performances are also strong; Mulligan is not exactly stretched but is always loveable, Albert Brooks gives a good turn as the more intelligent of the two gangsters, and Bryan Cranston is superb as the Driver’s friend and mentor, Shannon.
Not everything in Drive works though, and it is important not to get carried away. Refn flawlessly creates the right atmosphere for his film to flourish but doesn’t always back it up with enough substance. There are some stunning scenes and the momentum builds slowly, but the film is badly let down by its ending. The final confrontation is spoiled with a poor choice of shot, and the plot somehow manages to swerve around its conclusion.
As I said at the beginning, Drive is a B-movie, and is best enjoyed on that level. It is better than most, because the talent is better than most. Refn is an excellent director and he is working with great actors. Drive is an endearing and stylish film, but not one to be taken too seriously.