BOTTOM LINE: Modern film noir breathes new life into the car chase genre and will leave fanboys salivating.
There’s been buzz surrounding Cannes darling Drive for months, and after watching it, I can confirm the standing ovation it received at the film festival was more than than well-deserved. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s modern film noir, led by indie star Ryan Gosling, fuses Hitchcock and Tarantino in a bloody, explosive machofest that somehow still captures the moody cynicism of old-time Hollywood’s black and white crime dramas. Adrenaline-fueled yet melancholy, Drive emphasises style over content, but still has enough meat on its bones for mainstream audiences to gnaw on.
Gosling plays the anonymous Driver, a quiet, enigmatic young man who works as a stuntman and mechanic during the day and moonlights as a wheelman for criminals looking to get away quickly. It appears his prospects are looking up, as his mentor, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), has just convinced wealthy investor Bernie (Albert Brooks) to financially back Driver in a stock car race. Things go to hell when Driver meets his lovely neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mother whose husband is in jail. The two click immediately and eventually fall in love – but before they can pursue their feelings, Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) comes back into her life. However, Standard has a price on his head. He owes men money, and they’re threatening to hurt Irene and their son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), if Standard doesn’t pay up. Desperate to protect Irene and Benicio, Driver agrees to help Standard pull off a heist that will clear his debt. The job goes horribly wrong, and Driver is unwittingly forced into into a bloody, high-octane fight for survival that involves criminals far more dangerous than his usual crowd.
Before I get into anything else, I have to single out Drive‘s soundtrack. Music is usually the last thing I pay attention to in a movie, but it was the first thing that made me do a double take in Drive. The techno-inspired track that plays over the opening credits draws you in right away, letting you know exactly what you’re in for, and the rest of the eclectic soundtrack is just as phenomenal — bursting with sultry, pulsating, adrenaline-pumping songs that perfectly capture the gritty, dangerous vibe of Los Angeles’ seedy underbelly.
The acting in Drive is superb all around. Gosling is so versatile — it’s hard to fathom that he went from a suave womaniser in Crazy, Stupid, Love to his role in this film. He shows a rough-around-the-edges, hardened side to him as a criminal with dubious motives. Gosling is one of those rare actors who doesn’t need a script — he manages to convey so much emotion and story just by striking a pose against a doorframe. Mulligan is captivating as usual. She brings a hint of defiance to Irene when she could easily have just settled for the sweet, helpless damsel-in-distress archetype. Brooks and Ron Perlman, who plays Bernie’s shady partner Nino, stand their own as the film’s villains, bringing to life two different points in the spectrum of evil. And Cranston and fellow cable star Christina Hendricks, who appears as an accomplice in the heist, both make strong impressions even though their roles are brief.
The script is perhaps the film’s only flaw (if you can even call it that) — just barely structured enough to serve as a sturdy foundation for the cast and crew to work off of, it was definitely fleshed out considerably in production and post-production. The tone of the film allows the characters to get away with saying little, but it’s clear at times that dialogue doesn’t have the same harsh, dirty feel to it as the rest of the film. There’s a sense of hesitation about Hossein Amini’s adaptation of the novel. The story is there but threadbare, without any interesting subplots to take it to the next level.
Beyond that, everything in Drive just works. The cinematography is breathtaking, showcasing even the worst of Los Angeles (Echo Park) at its best. It’s fascinating to see beautiful shots of the Los Angeles skyline at sunset paired with bursts of extreme stunts and violence. The schizophrenic nature of the production design really comes across strongest in one particular scene shot in an elevator, when romance and brutality entwine in a stomach-turning sequence of events that will leave audiences gaping. That startling contrast, seen throughout the film, is what makes Drive so thrilling — you never see anything coming.
Above all else, that aspect is what makes Drive so special. Everything feels new and exciting. The car chase genre has been driven (hah) into the ground by so many gimmicky movies (read: the entire Fast and the Furious series). I honestly expected nothing going into the screening. Drive has such a distinct personality, though. By infusing it with such distinct noir characteristics, Refn brings new life to the genre, shocking audiences using unpredictable but organic methods. It’s a unique blend of box office and arthouse — the subject and setpieces will appeal to mainstream audiences, while the quiet, moody moments in between add depth and dimension, proudly flaunting the film’s indie roots (as if the hot pink font in the opening credits and the gratuitous use of cheesy slow-motion didn’t make it clear enough). It’s obvious that a great deal of care has gone into this film from the first five minutes alone, which show Driver expertly tearing through the streets of downtown Los Angeles with two terrified criminals in his backseat while being pursued by police cars and helicopters — all without saying a single word.
Drive is destined to become a cult film. Fanboys will undoubtedly delight in the movie’s brazen moments of gore and violence and hail Gosling as the next silent, tortured hero of cinema. Refn has simultaneously brought back a beloved era and reinvented a sputtering genre, and for that, Drive has a permanent place in film history.