With Ryan Gosling as an übercool, unnamed getaway driver, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive mixes LA heist movie with Melvillian lonerism for a sexy, seething delight.
Night Flight To Venus by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
By now you’ll know the premise. Winning Best Director at Cannes for it, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is based on the true story of a Hollywood stuntman who runs a sideline in getaway driving. And the LA thriller certainly starts well, with Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver glittering under the pulsating, neon-lit streets, his night driving comfortingly hypnotic, his high-octane escape from the police awesome in its cold calculation, swooping smartly under bridges beyond the clutches of the LAPD. But with its simmering tension and laconic pace, Drive‘s slowly stimulating rhythm never quite pushes the pedal to the metal with the ultimate getaway drive you might have been hoping for.
When you think of celluloid car chases, it’s hard to beat classics like The French Connection, Bullitt or The Bourne Identity, and while Drive gives us reason to hope – it’s got the driver, the souped up ricers (and not just Fast And Furious chicken racing), a heist and extreme violence – but with no decent muscle-car chase in sight, what really is this Transporter for the art house generation? Macho for one, for all its fetishising gazes of Gosling’s ’80s chic – all gold sateen bomber jacket, aviator sunglasses and Cuban heels. And it’s perhaps not surprising after Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous über-masculine heroes in Pusher, Bronson and Valhalla Rising. Master of the snake hips and ever-present toothpick, there’s something almost too stylish about Gosling’s strong and silent type. With his slicked down hair and his leather driving gloves, it’s hard to tell if the kid’s fastidiously well dressed or a psychopath in the making.
The idea, of course, is that he’s the good shark, silent and graceful, while at times unrepentantly violent. But he’s a good man, who uses his precisely orchestrated night-time getaways as a way of relaxing, only getting dragged into the other side of cool by his romantic stirrings for neighbour Irene and a protective affection for her son Benicio. And yet, with his wanton muteness and Carey Mulligan’s doe-eyed shyness, Drive could do with a fuel-injection of dialogue to get its pistons pumping. With barely a word mustered between them, it’s hard to believe they fall in love so easily.
And while both Mulligan and Gosling do exceptionally well with nothing much in their weaponry but a battery of glances, their characters don’t really have much of a relationship. And with no backstory to go by, we have to suspend our disbelief that our rugged hero couldn’t just walk into a bar any night of the week and take his pick, and muster some support for the idea that that domestic drudge Irene and anodyne Benicio were the best thing that ever happened to Gosling’s character – a solitary introvert cast from the same mould as Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï.
With a paper-thin script, Drive cruises along the highway of celluloid cool with its stylish retro score, male iconography and bursts of savage brutality. It’s a distortedly glossy portrait of human nature, summed up in the tale of the scorpion and the frog the driver’s jacket alludes to – he might drown himself with a badly timed sting, but he can’t escape his violent nature. Like its hero, Drive lives only in the here and now, anaesthetically distanced from both past and future, existing only in a cinematic pleasure of the present, the driver keeping life at bay with a withdrawn ritualised existence of working, driving and night-time mechanical tinkering, a violently happy ignorance.
Ignorance, it seems, is bliss. Time and again, the driver refuses to learn more than his five-minute window of collusion. And it’s a precaution borne out by the film’s narrative drive. After the hold-up goes awry and he finds himself holed up in a motel room with Blanche and a million dollars, his loss of innocence is twofold, bruising information out of his airhead accomplice and, Carrie-esque, increasingly besmirched in the blood of his victims. It’s a west-coast hit on the east-coast Family, and any knowledge on the treachery is original sin, as Jewish mafioso Nino and his stooge Bernie Rose climb up the tree of complicity, only death able to cleanse the surplus of knowledge and tilt the cosmos back on its criminal axis.
While its premise may be neo-noir, for all its oneiric cruising up and down the City of Angels’ boulevards, Drive isn’t really an LA film either. Unlike the noirs of the Forties, Rebel Without A Cause or even Collateral, there isn’t a great sense of place to its backstreet condos and roadside diners. Only the LA River culvert lingers in Los Angeles lore – Chinatown perhaps or a curiously atonal nod to the muscle-car race in Grease. But for all its gear-crunching shortfalls, Drive is still immensely enjoyable, Nicolas Winding Refn’s refusal to play by the rules akin to that of his antihero. And its cinematography makes the best of both the city at night and its buffed and polished lead. Like its opening song The Chromatics’ Tick Of The Clock, it’s film as music – a sensual pleasure which takes us along for the Drive.
Drive is released on 23rd September 2011 in the UK