Nicholas Winding Refn is a rare breed. He is one of the only directors working today that can make a film that sounds like something we’ve seen a thousand times before and create something completely original and out on its own. Drive is his first foray into Hollywood filmmaking and he shook it to the core with the strangest and coolest film of 2011.
The film shares DNA with Walter Hill’s classic The Driver, a down-and-dirty 70′s actioner with great car chases and a cool central performance from Ryan O’Neal. But Drive is its own beast, and what a beautiful beast it is.
Refn is best known for the Pusher trilogy and for showcasing Tom Hardy’s exceptional talents in Bronson, and Drive is a perfect companion piece to the latter, focussing for the most part on just one man’s journey. The difference being that Hardy’s Bronson talks, Ryan Gosling’s Driver hardly says a word.
It’s Ryan Gosling’s performance that takes the film to another level. He’s slowly built a CV full of solid performances and was nominated for Best Actor as a crack-addicted teacher in the excellent Half Nelson. 2011 was Gosling’s biggest year to date, showing impressive range in George Clooney’s political thriller The Ides of March and making the ladies swoon in underrated rom-com Crazy Stupid Love. But it was Drive that captured the imagination of virtually everybody in the film world.
Gosling plays the near-mute Driver like a 21st century Steve McQueen or James Dean. The screenplay was a lean 81 pages, and most of them could be summed up with the description: ’He broods’. This is the type of performance that not many actors could pull off, not to mention the awful Scorpion jacket that he’s wearing throughout the film. Only Brad Pitt has looked cooler and sexier in such a terrible piece of attire – see Fight Club‘s leather jacket for further reference. Nobody but the coolest men on the planet could pull them off. They nail it.
Based on James Sallis’ 2005 novel, Drive follows the nameless Driver as he works as a mechanic and Hollywood stunt-driver in the day and moonlights as a getaway driver at night. He is friendless but for the Garage owner Shannon, who also gets him his moonlight work. But that changes when he meets his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (a great performance from Kaden Leos). They strike a connection and a romance seems on the cards, when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns from jail, owing protection money to some bad people.
Standard is beaten up and his family threatened, and is then forced to rob a pawn shop to pay off his debt. The Driver offers his services in order to protect Irene and her son, but it goes terribly wrong.
It is at this point that the 70′s style lo-fi actioner becomes an ultra-violent stylised dream – or nightmare – as The Driver sets out to bring down the gangsters responsible in order to ensure Irene’s safety, and here that Refn and Gosling flex their muscles to their full capabilities. A perfect example of this is the now famous “elevator scene”. Say the words “Drive’s elevator scene” to anyone who has seen the film and witness their reaction. It is that kind of reaction that has taken the film from cult status to near legendary status in such a short period of time.
The violence and the silence are as mesmerising and brilliant as each other, and ensure that you can’t keep your eyes off the screen. They are aided by the most beautiful retro soundtrack this side of the 80′s. Refn has an ear for music like nobody else is film. Gosling driving his 1973 Chevrolet Malibu for 96 minutes would have been cool enough, but the car chases are as good as anything you’ll see. Gone are the shaky-cam crashes of Bourne and Fast and the Furious, replaced here with simply great driving. It’s so refreshing, and takes you back to the days of Bullitt and The French Connection, where you could smell the burned rubber and winced at the crashes. Beautiful and real.
The supporting cast is all excellent, especially the bad guys, including the always-superb Ron Perlman and a rare non-comedic role from Albert Brooks, who you would never expect to see sticking a fork in a man’s eye.
That just sums up Drive: shocking, surprising, brutal, and ultimately essential.