“Drive,” the latest feature from director Nicolas Winding Refn, is certainly something to behold. While at once paying homage to any number of genres, styles and bygone eras of cinema, the film still manages to feel wholly it’s own. It’s also a quiet, strange, ultra-violent and at times borderline silly film, but all of these components seem to somehow click together like the cylinders in the gas guzzling muscle cars driven by the films lead character, played by Ryan Gosling. While I really kind of loved it I’m still having a hard time deciding if Winding Refn has truly made a brilliant film or if his beyond bold choices throughout are simply there for the sake of being bold choices. In short, is this movie as good as I thought it was or am I so enamored with its guts and the journey of never knowing where it’s headed that I ended up thinking it’s brilliant. One viewing of “Drive” isn’t enough to answer those questions and I’m excited to see the film again.
Gosling plays a man with no name who works for shady and crippled father-like figure Shannon (Cranston) as a stunt car driver by day and as a getaway driver-for-hire by night. And the dude is good. Cooler than the other side of your pillow when he’s behind the wheel and unwilling to take any guff, he’s simply the hired hand used to help criminals escape from the scene of a crime and then… he walks away. The driver doesn’t want to be involved with what’s happened and this seems to be his M.O. in life as well as he is a “nowhere man” ghost with zero attachments. While we never really know much about the driver, we see he’s worked up a nice little crush on his neighbor, an apparently single mom named Irene (Mulligan). Soon they become friends but the quiet exchanges between them show an intense connection that, while never explained, is palpable.
Irene, as it turns out, isn’t single per se. Her husband Standard (Isaac) is in prison and unfortunately he soon gets out. As con men are prone to do, Standard soon finds himself back in hot water but this time Irene and her son Benicio (Leos) are threatened, which raises the ire of the normally detached driver. He works out a deal to get Standard and, more importantly, his wife and child off the hook but like any great film noir (which this film is… sort of) there are machinations behind the scenes that no one sees coming. The other thing no one sees coming is some downright brutal violence. And I loved that part of it as well.
As I mentioned, I can’t help but think Winding Refn is going for something bigger than a gory, violent, chase flick sandwiched between quiet moments as his choices in everything from how to shoot the action to the clothes the driver wears are intentional and deliberate to the point of calling attention to themselves. For instance, the driver is always seen in either a white satin jacket emblazoned with a scorpion on the back or in a dark blue denim jacket. Sometimes these outfits seem to change within a scene and I’m not sure why. The soundtrack (which actually annoyed me greatly) is all 80’s style synth, as if it were ripped from a Friedkin crime drama from that age but the film takes place in modern times. Why the soundtrack choice then? I guess another thing that keeps me wondering if this film is actually as great as I think is that Winding Refn hasn’t exactly emblazoned the screen previously with deep thematic elements. Rather he’s gone for insane bombast with films like the whacked out “Bronson” and the off-the-wall Crusaders epic “Valhalla Rising.” Not to say the director hasn’t just up and decided to slow it down and mature almost overnight but with just one “deep” film, I’m not ready to anoint him a true artist just yet.
The biggest drawback of the film is that “Drive” is deliberate almost to the point of comedy as Gosling’s driver is basically a mute. Whenever anyone asks him the simplest question, he responds by saying nothing and cocking his head like a dog wondering if you’re going to smack him or give him a treat. I could totally see a “Saturday Night Live” sketch called “Brooding Man” where a cast member acts the same way for comedy’s sake but, again, this is a choice from Winding Refn and Gosling, who is an actor I greatly admire. There has to be a reason for the way he acts and it’s never explained. But it’s intriguing and really adds a slow boil sensibility to the film. When the pot reaches 100 degrees, you better watch out. “Drive” is definitely worth your time and it’s the kind of film that sticks with you for days after. I just hope it’s as good as I thought it was.