The financiers of Drive must have absolutely shit themselves when they saw the finished film. Here was a project that began life as a Hugh Jackman action/adventure vehicle in the vein of the Fast and Furious series, and what it became, arguably, was an art film. A film where the first 40 minutes are filled with so little dialogue, were it not for the music (which is AMAZING, by the way) one could easily forget they were watching a “talkey”. An action film where there are only two relatively brief chase scenes with which it could justify its title, and in place of choreographed fight sequences, existed only punctuation marks of far-beyond-brutal violence. A film hanging not on the rugged Australian shoulders of bankable action star Jackman, but of a former teen heartthrob (Ryan Gosling) whose greatest commercial success was the Nicholas Sparks adaptation/120-minute yawn, The Notebook. Their only consolation must have been that they’d only sunk about $13 million into this thing (that’s peanuts in Hollywood money). What they thought was going to happen when they hired director Nicolas Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Bronson), a Danish filmmaker who had never made a mainstream American picture in his life and whose films tend to tackle subject matter of a transgressive nature, will forever be beyond me. But the distributors of Drive refused to let go of their dream of standard action fare, and marketed it as such in one of the most misleading promotional campaigns in filmmaking history. So much so, a Michigan woman is actually suing for false advertisement, which, while paint-huffingly idiotic, illustrates their folly pretty clearly. What is likely lost on this microcosm of bean counters and ad execs is that, while Drive did not turn out to be the cinematic junk food guaranteed to put mouth breathers in the seats and god-like amounts of money in studios pockets, it is, without a doubt, one of the closest this last half-decade has come to producing a flawless film.
As Drive is, at its core, an atmospheric character study, what plot there is fairly simple. It’s protagonist, simply known as, get this, the Driver (mind blown??), is a small-time mechanic and stuntman by day, getaway driver by night. The same preternatural skill and calm that makes the Driver great at evading police cruisers also makes for an excellent stockcar racer, leading his boss Shannon (Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston) to petition mobster Bernie (Albert Brooks, of Simpsons and Finding Nemo Fame) for the funds to purchase a car for a joint venture, in the hopes of turning the Driver into a NASCAR star. Bernie acquiesces, to the amusement of his partner, the crude and vicious Nino (Ron Pearlman, who needs no introduction). Meanwhile, the Driver, a quiet recluse by nature, befriends a neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son (Kaden Leos), striking up something of romance and becoming a father figure to the boy. However, this is not to be; Irene is married, and her husband, Standard (television actor James Biberi) soon returns from a stint in prison, ready to pick up life with his family. The Driver learns that Standard owes money to a local crime figure, putting not only his life, but his wife and their son’s, in danger. Agreeing to assist his romantic rival for the sake of Irene and her child, the Driver prepares to play wheelman for a pawn shop robbery that will help Standard square his debts. Thus the stage is set for things to go from wrong to more wrong to just absolutely fucked beyond any and all repair for our hero, as anyone familiar with Refn’s filmography knew they would.
The first 10 minutes of Drive let you know you are not in for the average chase movie (it’s inclusion in that subgenre is already pretty dubious, as mentioned above). The initial heist and getaway is carried out with little bombast, shot almost entirely from the interior of the car, and with a bare minimum of dialogue, the least of it coming from our lead (giving Chuck Bronson’s The Mechanic a run for its money). And it is absolutely RIVETING. The last film that opened with this much tension was The Dark Knight, which is fitting, as Refn and Nolan draw from similar inspirational wells, thought they diverge in the way they play with these influences, chief of which here is Michael Mann in his prime (for my money, that would be his mid-80’s Manhunter period). And Michael Mann really makes for a great point for comparison; indeed, Drive very much plays like one of his films if he possessed even a modicum of fucking restraint (sorry, Mike, but it’s the goddamn truth). From here, the opening credits roll, all rendered in neon pink lettering (lifted, by Refn’s own admission, from Risky Business of all places) and dour (but oh-so awesome) euro-electro. It’s a damn good set-up, because it prepares the viewer for the unorthodox mélange of styles they’re about to partake of and also establishes it as very much an 80’s film, albeit one granted the hindsight necessary to trim the excesses that date and drag movies of the period, but retain the grit that made them great.
Refn isn’t about to bullshit you on how often he evokes his influences, but he’s not trotting them out like a “best of” reel, either. Sure, his protagonist is cut from the same cloth as Leone’s “Man with No Name” and the classic superhero archetype (Refn himself points to both the Driver’s iconic “costume” and a key act of near-superhuman violence as evidence to the later), but the Driver’s far more emotionally “alive” (albeit in his own, extremely introverted way), for lack of a better term, than Clint and Sergio’s creation, and far more morally dubious and violent than all but the most extreme four color heroes. And when the violence does happen, holy shit, get ready! Refn’s of the Cronenberg and von Trier school (the ferocity of the violence, plus the inclusion of a hammer in the Driver’s arsenal, makes Chan wook Park not an unwarranted inclusion either) when it comes to his bloodshed, letting the tension ratchet up until late in the film before the explosions of blood, beef and bone commence, and even then they come not with regularity, lest the viewer become complacent. Unlike the aforementioned duo, however, Refn does not linger on his viscera, and sometimes even abstains entirely. In one particular instance, just as we are about to see a major villain receive his well-deserved death, the camera jumps back to a far-away crane shot, giving only the slightest hint of the violence taking place. It’s a testament to the director’s restraint that he refuses to go for the easy shot here, and remains intent on keeping us on our toes, even this late in the game. Refn transitions between genre, style and tone with such fluidity, I’d go so far as to argue that with Drive, he solidly asserts himself to be in the same league as the Coens in this regard.
But no amount of directorial thaumaturgy alone would have earned Drive it’s greatness. For the second crucial component to the film’s success, one need look no further than Ryan Gosling. Never could I have guessed that this notoriously sensitive pretty boy could rise to the occasion as such an exceedingly brutal action hero, let alone one with this level of well-rounded humanity. And ya know what? Fuckin’ shame on me. The only proof I should have needed of Gosling’s capabilities was his role as the self-hating Jewish neo-Nazi in 2001’s The Beliver, but frankly, he so became that role, it never even occurred to me that it was him at all (that or it did and a decade’s worth of drugs and booze have swiss-cheesed the part of my brain where memory resides, but let’s not split hairs). And even his role in that film, great as it is, does not even begin to suggest just how far he would one day take his craft in Drive. With what little he’s given to say, 90% of what Gosling does here is in his body language, his relaxed smile (which comes off like he watched the last scene of Taxi Driver over and over again, trying to reproduce DeNiro’s grin, then find a way to one-up it) and his hypnotic goddamn eyes (no homo…ok, kinda homo). The tranquil gaze he wears through the first half of the film (think an unhinged Chris Evans) betrays only the slightest hint of the predator within, but by the end, he is downright wolfish in his single-minded, cold-blooded glare. But never does he seem out of control, and even when he is dispensing merciless retribution, he gives the impression that we are only experiencing one-one hundredth of his rage. And somehow, despite his capacity for violence, Gosling makes him likeable, noble even. He plays the scenes with Irene and her son so warmly that when he begins his bloody crusade, there is no question that he is tapping into his sinister impulses above all out of a very paternal urge to protect. And while Gosling is the undisputed show-stealer, special note should be given to young Kaden Leos, for admirably doing something that child actors have seemed incapable of since Jaws: acting like a fucking child.
The public response to Drive, while generally not as astoundingly stupid as the Minnesota windowlicker mentioned earlier (seriously, lady: FUCK YOU), was largely indifferent. For an independent film, it made (as of this writing) a respectable $33 million, though this is still well under studio expectations, made worse through an extensive (and costly) marketing campaign conducted as though they though they could will it into being the next action blockbuster just by closing their eyes tight and fucking wishing. None of this surprises me. But It’s disheartening (I can only imagine how much more so for Nicolas Refn). Disheartening because audiences, upon seeing the extraordinary work of cinema before them in place of the cookie-cutter car chase loop they expected, didn’t drop to their knees and thank whatever god they pray to that there are people out trying to make film into art again. Not exclusionary, elitist art; art that does not seek to sail over the audiences head or assault them with pretension, but simply seeks to take them to a place, be it visually, narratively or emotionally, that they might not have gone before. I want to say that they don’t make movies like Drive anymore, but in truth, they never made ‘em like this. Drive is a mean beast of a movie, one that sees what came before it not through the lens of nostalgia, but the eye of a surgeon, excising what was a product of 80’s decadence and using what remains as a solid foundation to craft something truly unique. It’s a thing of silence and beauty, but one that will often rock you with unexpected frenzy. It is the action movie reinvented as absolute zen. The general public may have let out a collective “meh” at the release of Drive, but you needn’t follow suit, and if you value cinema, you won’t.
– Adam Rosina