Cinema history is filled with monosyllabic male heroes. Righteous men with hearts of gold and nerves of steel; chisel jawed gunslingers who shoot first and ask questions later, and need nothing more than the love of a good woman. In this respect, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is pure Hollywood cliché, a contemporary reworking of 50s Western, Shane.
Ryan Gosling is the archetypal Man with No Name, an anonymous character who crashes cars in Hollywood movies by day, helps out at a garage owned by his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston), and earns extra money as a getaway driver by night. Calm and detached, everything the driver does is carefully planned and economical; his getaway driving is carried out with split-second accuracy, he lives alone in an austere LA apartment, and seldom says two words when none will do.
The driver’s carefully ordained life changes when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan). Soon, they’re exchanging lingering looks, enjoying pleasant days out by the river, and falling quietly in love. But when the safety of Irene and her young son is threatened, the driver sets out to protect them, and in the process, reveals a previously repressed and extraordinarily violent side to his personality. A heist goes wrong, hammers are wielded, and the driver gets mixed up with some very, very bad men.
It’s a familiar scenario, but Refn constantly goes against the generic thriller grain. Abrupt, blunderbuss shots of violence are contrasted with long stretches of portentous silence – the net result, of course, being that the violent bits become all the more shocking. One shotgun attack in particular resulted in an audible gasp from certain members of the audience.
And then there’s the fabulous cast. Ryan Gosling is quite possibly one of the most unlikely tough guys in movie history, and yet, through a mixture of superb direction and a sheer force of artistic will, he’s absolutely perfect. He brings a curious, skinny-hipped sense of menace to the role, and while he lacks the imposing silhouette of Jason Statham or Dwayne Johnson, when he lets forth his righteous fury in certain scenes, he’ll utterly convince you of his capacity for violence.
Gosling’s the perfect choice, too, for the character of a cool-headed stunt driver and post-heist wheelman. His anger and consternation isn’t projected with spittle-inflected fury, but with a cold sidelong glance, or the subtle twitch of an eyelid. His getaway driving isn’t the tyre-shredding, tail-sliding stuff of 80s Hollywood, but calculated and economical. This is, in short, one of the few relatively realistic depictions of driving in thriller cinema.
This isn’t to say that Drive is at all naturalistic. It’s full of Georgio Moroder-style pop straight out of Scarface, surreal lighting, and a preoccupation with fussy wallpaper that recalls Park Chan-wook’s classic revenge flick, Oldboy.
Refn introduces all sorts of quirks and conceits to Gosling’s character, which when written down seem unbelievably naff, but when seen in motion are unfeasibly cool; just look at that silken jacket, with its vast scorpion stitched on the back. It’s the sort of thing Stallone or Van Damme would have draped over their shoulders in their Reagan-era prime. The addition of an ever-present toothpick to the corner of Gosling’s mouth is something else that I never thought I’d see again in an action thriller – and yet there it is, and somehow, it works.
The casting of Gosling really makes sense when you see him alongside Carey Mulligan’s cherubic girl next door. There’s a lingering, passionate kiss in a descending lift that exemplifies just how perfect the pair of them are for this film. A more macho actor could never pull such a scene off, partially because he wouldn’t fit in the lift, but also because he simply wouldn’t look right in such a soul-baring moment of vulnerability.
Gosling, meanwhile, has the acting chops to cruise through Refn’s scenes of romance, while also pulling off some quite spectacular moments of bloodletting. This isn’t to say that Drive’s violence is gratuitous, however. Ever the dramatist, Refn pulls his camera back when you’re expecting the film to fall into a familiar action thriller groove, yet zooms the lens back in when you’re least expecting it. The result is a rare thing: a movie that satisfies dramatically, while maintaining the suspense of a purebred thriller.
It’s worth mentioning, though, that while Drive falls easily into the revenge thriller genre – if you were to give the synopsis a cursory glance over, at least – the actual revenge component is the least interesting aspect of the film. Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks are the villains of the piece, and deliver strong performances, yet their characters are barely sketched in. One major scene Perlman and Brooks share is so ridiculously expository that it clashes with the rest of the film’s measured atmosphere. It’s one misstep in an otherwise exemplary movie.
Drive, through a mixture of expert casting, passion and a cool eye for what is bad and what is brilliant about the iconography of mainstream action movies, manages to do something quite rare: it fulfils almost all its duties as a genre film, delivering the tensions, confrontations and violent resolutions that a larger audience might expect, while also serving as an unusual and arrestingly individual piece of filmmaking.