Drive: The movie cinema’s been waiting for.
‘When we were getting ready for this movie,’ says Ryan Gosling, ‘Nic (director Nicholas Winding Refn) and I, we both agreed that [we] loved Pretty in Pink but we thought if there was a head-smashing in it, it would be a masterpiece.’ John Hughes plus violence isn’t nearly the full measure of Refn’s flawless neo-noir (although that in itself would be worth getting excited about), but Drive is, in line with Gosling’s sentiment, a true cinephile’s movie. Not the wanky, look-how-many-shit-grindhouse-movies-I’ve-seen-cinephilia of Tarantino, but a lucid understanding of generic codes, aesthetics and the balance of tension and emotion. The film does have a clear cinematic lineage of hard-boiled existential New Hollywood crime thrillers: Point Blank, Vanishing Point, and most obviously Walter Hill’s urban western The Driver; and before them the laconic New Wave gangsters of Godard’s Breathless and Melville’s Le Samourai. But let’s not get mired in references. Derivative it may be, but that’s not to say Drive lacks verve. On the contrary, it feels like the movie that cinema has been waiting for for years.
Set in a gorgeously seedy, neon-bathed L.A that blends 80s kitsch with 21st century urban cool, Drive is as knowingly tacky as it is sublime; a feel that is perfectly matched by the pulsating synths of Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,” Desire’s “Under Your Spell” and College featuring Electric Youth’s dreamy “Real Hero”: contemporary yet nostalgic electro-pop gems that feel tailor-made for the film; grounding it in its strangely ahistorical retro-present. Hossein Amini’s screenplay keeps plot and dialogue blissfully and effectively simple (something mainstream Hollywood fare seems to have woefully forgotten how to do), with the tale of a virtuoso stuntman-cum-getaway driver whose attempt to help winsome neighbour Carey Mulligan’s ex-con husband pay off a prison debt jack-knifes into a gripping spiral of blood and retribution. The superbly but economically handled car-chases and scenes of occasionally gut-wrenching violence plot a patient course through L.A.’s sleazy, menacing, concrete metropolis; smouldering with raw, Mann-esque intensity and a fetishistic attention to detail. And yet Refn marries this with wonderful tawdriness. One exemplary scene sees Gosling getting inventive with a hammer and a bullet on a terrified gang member backstage at a strip-club; the violence bathed in the sensual glow of dressing-room mirror bulbs and surrounded by semi-naked, expressionless, almost statuesque strippers. Indulgent; vulgar even? Yes. But a vulgarity pushed to abstraction, and executed with such self-awareness and stylish aplomb it’s impossible not to admire it.
As for the players, Albert Brooks’ brilliant against-type turn as a cold-blooded gangster will change the way you see the dad in Finding Nemo forever, while if (like yours truly) you know Bryan Cranston only as the long-suffering patriarch from Malcolm in the Middle (rather than as a skinhead meth-dealer in Breaking Bad), his dodgy-dealing, tragi-comic pseudo-father figure here becomes even more endearing. But it’s Gosling who carries the film. Often foregoing words in favour of a subtle smile, his nameless, enigmatic wheelman is not only effortlessly charismatic but believable, as is his chemistry with Mulligan: their understated relationship – based largely on the exchange of charged but wordless glances – providing the vessel for emotional investment as the threat of her husband’s vindictive associates looms large. Perhaps even more impressive, though, is Gosling’s previously unseen capacity to exude genuine menace; the foretold head-smashing he exacts one of several flashes of bloody brutality that give the film’s glossy aesthetics a hard, fierce edge.
From the garish pink Dirty Dancing-esque cursive adorning its opening titles to the glorious western-style showdown at its climax, Drive is pure joy. Refn’s Best Director award at Cannes is testament to as much; something of a coup when faced with the auteur-movie competition of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Daddy Issues and Almodóvar’s latest campy Spanish schlockfest The Skin I Live In. But Drive’s real triumph is not merely to impress the arthouse festival crowd with its stylish abstraction and genre-work – set for saturation release, there’s a meaty, multiplex-baiting engine under its hood, and one that defies turgid mainstream trends. What more could you want?
Drive is out from 23 September. The Driver is playing at Greenwich Picturehouse on 3 October.