I love the style of this film. Drive draws you in with its rhythm and mood, but is not for the faint of heart. We rapidly become aware that in true noir style this is all going to end badly for everyone. It is more of a comic book world without the humour of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.
Drive premièred at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where Nicholas Winding Refn received the best director award. This was quite an achievement as there were many other strong films in this year’s competition. It is ironic that another strong contender who also hails from Denmark would have been Lars Van Trier (Refn grew up on Lars' sets as his father worked with Van Trier for many years), but he wound up banned from the festival over a series of anti-Semitic remarks. Refn is a method director who has absorbed much from the American film masters. It’s readily apparent he has studied the great films of Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray and many others.
Refn paints an extremely visual world, and transports the viewer into it. He seems to have an innate sensibility for blending horrible acts of violence with silent pauses. In Bronson, which is based on a true story and character, he is fearless in portraying a man constantly battling against society. Tom Hardy gives a performance so profound, every actor in Hollywood wanted to meet him and the director. When Valhalla Rising screened at Torino Film Festival where Refn was being honored with a retrospective of his work, the Italian fans were struck by the visual worlds Refn created, rich with images of a brutality—everyone living in the moment, struggling for survival-of-the-fittest, always on the frontier. Whether on the tops of frozen mountains or as crusaders expanding into a new world, these characters were fueled by religious belief and desire to conquer. The violent action of men reduced to their primitive instincts seems to be a recurring theme throughout his work. I felt more transported with the characters in Refn's other films. Maybe because the world they took place in was so distinctly different from our own. These other characters and their reactions had to carry more of the story and became very real the more we learned about them.
Refn came to LA to make the film and since he doesn't drive, his star, Ryan Gosling, took the wheel as they immersed themselves in the city. Not Beverly Hills or Mulholland Drive, but Echo Park and Silver Lake. They lived together by the Hollywood sign. They ate, and drank in the back streets and nameless bars. Along with American icons Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, they smoked cigars, and, together, brought James Sallis’ book to life. There is a raw style in every frame which reveals a slice of life that few ever see in the shadows of the sparkling glamorous LA portrayed in most movies. In Drive, Refn explores the hills, the streets and freeways, once again creating a unique world—a city that spreads out for miles, sprawling with a multitude of neighborhoods, full of people with broken dreams who have moved here from all over the world.
At the core of this film is a love story. Gosling's character, Driver, is a contrast between brute force when threatened, and shyness in love. He meets Irene, a young single mother (Carey Mulligan) working as a waitress, and courts her like a school girl. In reality she is the wife of a jailed criminal who is about to get out. Driver is employed driving stunt cars for movies by day and as an auto mechanic between gigs. He also works as a getaway driver for gangsters at night. It is during these short assignments that he really lives. Time and space compress, decisions are made instantaneously, all that matters is getting away from the scene of the crime, eluding the police and reaching the replacement vehicle.
Driver is an existential character, living and breathing on the surface until he becomes a love-struck puppy who lives only to save the damsel in distress. Then the production becomes a colourful film noir, full of action and rich with the rhythms of a great sound track composed by Cliff Martinez. Gosling’s performance is picture perfect. “He’s a star with little to say,” said Refn after the LA première. It’s what happens in the silences that matters.”
Refn lets the cars, guns and the music play the actors. Like all of his other films there is intense violence but here there is a love story that contrasts the brutality with shy desire—all of that is wrapped up in the actions and choices of the main character. Still, there is really no one character to like or relate to within the film. All of the cast including Brooks, Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, and Perlman give great performances, but there is alienation and an existential coldness to their lives.
There are several scenes with water captured in the desert. Once after an exciting driving sequence on a dry concrete river bed the makeshift family relaxes at a small stream and later during a day at the beach. It is really only in these scenes that we see anyone enjoy themselves. These few moments of peace amidst the hot dry landscape are a metaphorical contrast to the action that dominates the film. It is only a momentary respite for the characters and the audience before we are once again transfixed by the film’s relentless action. It is hard to imagine that a man who can be so savage can also be so sweet and infatuated. Driver is a man who lives by his own code of honour that is both his strength and downfall.
By journey’s end, it’s clear for all who inhabit this very dark world, there is no way out. JWR