As I left the theatre with a group of friends after seeing Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, I was asked if I liked it. I said that I did, that I’m usually okay when a bit of substance is sacrificed in the name of style. Past examples of this exception include 300 (but only briefly), and Tarsem’s The Fall, although Drive is a far better film than either of these. While I didn’t immediately put my thoughts about the film to paper, I thought about the film for several days following. I even downloaded the soundtrack–something I inevitably end up regretting (I’m shaking a finger at my fourteen-year-old self for spending birthday money on the Forces of Nature soundtrack). Something about Drive stuck with me. Since I’ve been feeling the need to see something in theaters for the last week, and considering my distaste for sports film (including MMA, and baseball-themed films), I decided to give Refn’s film a second viewing.
Leaving the theatre this time, I felt bad for my previous comment and no longer feel that Refn (or perhaps the credited writers, Hossein Amini for the script, and James Allis for the book) scarified substance for style. And that perhaps my opinion may have been skewed by reading A. O. Scott’s piece in the New York Times before seeing the film in the first place. While style certainly rides shotgun (yuk yuk) in Drive, there is thoughtful dialogue and meaningful character development. Cliches be damned. Any sort of romance wrapped around a heist film is subjected to certain constraints of the genre, inevitably concluding with the final question of, will they end up together, or won’t they? Refn makes it clear that the point of the film is not that some of these same devices or plot lines have been seen before. The film aims higher than that, and it succeeds.
For those weary of another filmmaker directing a love story backdropped by the gritty side of Los Angeles (or any other city for that matter), I can guarantee you a unique film, despite the constant homages to the likes of Michael Mann. The nature of the art of filmmaking often encourages the creation of, with allusions to, but ultimately not representative of its setting. Woody Allen’s New York, is not Martin Scorsese’s New York, for example. Refn has taken this pratice further than either of these directors. Calling a location or inanimate object a character within a film is something I’m not generally a fan of. But it’s impossible to call what Refn did to Los Angeles anything but that. His Los Angeles is neon. Its muggy, its filled with empty streets and sidewalks, only existing for those people in his story. Jack Kerouac called Los Angeles, “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.” Refn seemed to take this description literally. Despite being in one of the most populated cities in the world, these characters couldn’t be more isolated, brutal, or longing for some sort of meaningful connection.
At the center, of course, is Ryan Gosling, an unnamed stunt driver for the movies, a prodigy at his craft, who moonlights as a getaway car driver. The film’s opening scene is pure driving joy, letting him show what he can do behind the wheel. He utilizes more than just speed and horsepower, but also dexterity and a firm understanding of when it is just best to turn off your headlights and stay put. His longed for connection comes in the form of his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son Benicio. Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is absent while he’s serving time in prison for an unnamed crime. Gosling’s and Irene’s relationship is innocently chaste, but there’s a sexual tension nonetheless. A tension that may never find a release after Standard is abruptly released from prison and returns home. He brings with him some serious baggage, a mounting debt—namely an amount owed that threatens Irene and Benicio’s safety, the longer Standard is unable to repay it. Gosling offers to help Standard settle the debt in the form of one last job. Enter: the mob, a bag of cash, vendettas, betrayals, and non-sexualized nudity.
With these basics understood, it’s easy to imagine how Refn could veer into films like those of Oliver Megaton or Louis Leterrier. But his skill as a director (and a true testament to the script) becomes evident as he elevates the conceivably mundane to pure cinematic pleasure. And not the guilty kind either. Surrounding the admiring couple is a cast of supporting characters, all of which are interesting enough to warrant an entire film about them. Bryan Cranston deserves a special mention for his turn as a kindly, but rough-around-the-edges mentor for the Driver. As does a wide-eyed Christina Hendricks who’s taciturn role as a smaller player in the seedy underworld doesn’t offer many lines, but has a constantly commanding presence.
The brutality of the film, and understand, there is fork-in-the-eye, shotgun-to-the-head violence, remains a stumbling block for the more conservative. And while calling it “artful” is a stretch for even the most desensitized movie-goers, it does serve an ugly purpose as its sudden , often unpredicted presence provides the film with a necessary staccato that saves the film from getting lost in less worthy pursuits. The violence cannot be disassociated from the film’s style. And it’s this style, combined with outstanding performances, that raises Drive above its peers.