Directed By: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written By: Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Issacs, Christina Hendricks, and Ron Perlman.
Director of Photography: Newton Thomas Sigel, Editor: Matthew Newman, Production Designer: Beth Mickle, Original Music: Cliff Martinez
Rated: R for the type of violence you only see in the movies.
Read an interview with director Nicolas Winding Refn
Read an interview with director Nicolas Winding Refn
In what is probably the most self-conscious moment in Drive, Albert Brooks, playing a Jewish gangster, tells Ryan Gosling, “I was a movie producer in the 80s. Action films, sexy stuff—one critic called them European.” And while Drive is soaked in the visual style of American neo-noir, the world of Miami Vice and To Live and Die in L.A., its sensibilities and emotions feel ripped out of a 1960s Antonioni picture. Here’s a film about a man who must do what he does because it is all that he knows. It’s the type of self-conscious minimalist work that has lofty ambitions on recreating our knowledge of what it means to be an “action film.” But in reaching those lofty goals, Drive has the look of a sleek muscle car that is a beauty to look at, but hollow inside.
The film is the first American film from director Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish “auteur” with a knack for making self-conscious deconstructions. Best known for a Kubrikian exploration of violence called Bronson (which launched the career of Tom Hardy), a better vantage point for Drive would be his previous film Valhalla Rising, an ode to Tarkovsky that was a dumb-as-a-doorknob allegory that visually dazzled but offered little insight to its story of a one-eyed Viking. Mr. Winding Refn is a pure genre expert—he understands the little details that make us giggle with delight, like hearing the sounds of the leather gloves gripping the steering wheels. But he’s also too obsessed with his own allegories that Drive seems to offer little but a simple reconstruction. It’s the best action movie you’ll see this year, but it’s ultimate meaning is inauthentic.
If there’s one thing Mr. Winding Refn can do, it’s reign in the meticulous performance construction of Mr. Gosling. The Blue Valentine and Half Nelson star plays “the Driver,” a stuntman by day, getaway driver by night. If you needed more reinforcement that the Driver is a mythological being than a character he tells his clients they get a five minute window and he won’t carry a gun: “All I do is drive.” An opening sequence sets up the meticulous and wondrous design of Mr. Winding Refn’s Los Angeles, as Mr. Gosling drives robbers through the city, not at high speed chase, but by using the dark corners to remain hidden. Avoiding wide shots (though never spatially lost), Mr. Winding Refn puts us in the Driver’s perspective—the thrill, the intensity, and the adrenaline.
The narrative proper begins, however, when our hero meets his next door neighbor Irene (Carry Mulligan) and her son. Their conversations are pure European art house; they say little each other and the spaces fill their emotions. The connection is made, with the help of the film's amazing 1980s pop soundtrack and score (by Cliff Martinez), and perhaps this Driver can be redeemed. But complications must be made, and Irene’s husband comes out of prison and must pay off his debts to some gangsters before time is due, and the Driver must help if he wishes to protect Irene.
As Drive zooms through its narrative, it becomes clear that Mr. Winding Refn is much more interested in the mythology of the hero than the narrative itself. His particular craft comes through in the film’s visual design, from Mr. Gosling’s neon jacket to the cars themselves. Lighting is always striking, and in many ways Mr. Winding Refn is similar to Zac Snyder, where he wants each shot to be immediately iconic.
But such allegory also leads Drive into its essential problem that as meticulously constructed as it appears, the film is arid and devoid of feeling. This isn’t a story about characters, it’s about metaphors. Mr. Winding Refn’s ultra-violence—the type usually relegated to Tarantino movies—is part indulgent love for the genre, but the “artfulness” approach he takes also makes it devoid of meaning. A gorgeous sequence in an elevator may show both the beauty of innocence and the monstrous side of what heroes must become, but the metaphor is surface apparent.
What Drive really needs is less design and more chance. Mr. Brooks’s devilish turn and his character’s old school love for knives is a great surprise that gives the film a jolt of fresh air, but otherwise, Mr. Winding Refn is too concerned with designing a perfectly crafted picture without its soul. The elements simply sit on the screen, and as Drive approaches its conclusion, you know Mr. Winding Refn has made a film about the American hero, but has only created an exercise in style. Perhaps if Mr. Gosling wasn’t as controlled and let more loose in his character, or if the film’s self-conscious construction felt more organic, Drive could aim for the high art it wants to be.
In Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, the hit man is a stoic and silent character who must do what he must, but there’s a sense of character, of meaning, of necessity driven by his need. Drive is essentially a re-telling of that story within the grunge of the 1980s, but it lacks a soul and a heart. The pumping adrenaline from the grip of those gloves is a sign of a director who understands details and the excessive violence is a shocking jolt into a dying genre, but Mr. Winding Refn is simply to grandiose in his aims for a film that should wants to revel in the lower depths of society. He wants Drive not only to be an action movie, but the action movie.