I first saw Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film almost a year ago, and came to it with mixed expectations. I’d loved Bronson, an odd arthouse piece featuring a tour de force performance from Tom Hardy, mixing theatrical pantomime with extreme violence. On the other hand, Valhalla Rising was all a bit empty and tedious, despite Mads Mikkelsen’s enigmatic role as the one-eyed mute Viking…
Drive came with excellent reviews, and featured both Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, who have both impressed me enormously in everything I’d seen to date. But after my first viewing I wasn’t sure what I thought. Style over substance? Brilliant, or empty? So I held off writing a review until I saw it again, and it’s taken nearly 10 months. And now I feel I can confidently Reckon that Drive is fantastic; really, really fantastic.
Please note: this review contains significant spoilers throughout
The Opening Sequence
Right from the first frames several things are clear. First, this film wears its influences on its sleeve; although it’s set in the present day, it looks like something Michael Mann made 20 years ago, in a very good way. Second, it subverts expectations and genre tropes as often as possible. Third, it’s brilliantly executed, with a singular vision.
No-one will be looking at you…
Drive’s opening sequence is the antithesis of most action films with their squealing tyres and crunching metal. “The Kid” does everything possible to avoid attracting attention, from using the most popular car in the city of Los Angeles to the way he turns off his lights, parks up, hides. He listens to the police radio, which while it serves him well, also ratchets up the tension in the silence that surrounds it. The rest of the time he’s listening to some basketball game on the radio, whose significance only becomes clear in a stunning shot as the game commentary climaxes and he pulls into the arena’s underground carpark just as the fans emerge after the game. He wordlessly leaves the car, pulls a team cap over his eyes, and (like Keyser Sozé?!) he’s gone…
Like Michael Mann, but better?
The fabulous 1980’s style soundtrack, the slow-motion montages, the use of song lyrics as a kind of Chorus commenting on the characters and action, the neon pink titles script, the whole feel just oozes Miami Vice, but better, more knowing, with more edge. And it’s truly beautifully shot with a precision that Mann surely influenced. Inside the car we always see Gosling from low in the passenger seat, or from over his shoulder, with his eyes ever-present in the rear view mirror. The lighting and the colour palettes are deliberate and fantastic. Is it always ‘The Golden Hour‘ in Los Angeles?
The frequent cityscapes of Los Angeles at night made me think almost immediately of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s influential masterpiece that also depicted L.A. to a wonderfully ambient soundtrack. As I say, Drive picks its references from the very top drawer.
Silence is Golden…
Whereas I recall Bronson as being mostly a full-frontal assault on every sense, and Valhalla Rising the polar opposite, like a sensory-deprivation tank, Winding Refn here uses sound brilliantly to create his moods. The police radio chatter and sports commentary in the opening sequence is a great start, and instead of squealing tyres, we mostly get the approaching police sirens and a helicopter overhead to increase the tension. Throughout the film The Kid is taciturn to the point of silence. Dialogue is sparse most of the time he’s on screen, which is a lot.
More than that, the contrasts between quiet and loud are dramatic, and for a reason. They heighten the tension in a chase scene, when moments before all we could hear was his knuckles clenching inside his leather driving gloves, then the car engines finally burst into life and it feels like a fighter jet going over. When violence erupts, it’s brutal, shocking and sudden, and the sound is gruesomely gory.
The party sequence in Irene’s apartment is amazing – we hear the actual song playing in the room, then a muffled version from inside Gosling’s neighbouring flat, then a different level again out in the hallway, but instead of hearing only the bass (as would be more realistic) we get all the words, because the lyrics are important for the scene, this commentary on the action. In a sense I Reckon Nicolas Winding Refn is as manipulative a director as they come, but in Drive he does it brilliantly.
The Kid seems almost like a Travis Bickle for his generation. He’s not damaged by Vietnam, but consider the evidence…
- He’s a driver for hire, deliberately anonymous among some Very Bad Men doing Very Bad Things
- We often see him reflected in mirrors
- When he meets Irene and her son Benicio, he sees in them a way out of this world, and even more, innocents whom he could protect
- For someone who seems mild-mannered and withdrawn, he turns to violence, brutal, physical, imaginative violence almost effortlessly, and he’s very good at it. But there’s always a sense of that’s what he feels he has to do, to fulfil his role, to protect Irene.
- He doesn’t seem proud, in fact there’s a sense that he has damaged everyone around him with his actions. His violence repulses and terrifies her, and his inability to express himself fully makes him even harder to reach.
Several times a song breaks through the soundtrack to proclaim
…you became a hero, a real human being…
But I Reckon this isn’t about being ‘real’, it’s deliberately not real, more like a fantasy. And this, to me, is the heart of Drive…
A Knight in White Satin?
In David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, there’s a line from Nicolas Cage’s Sailor that came back to me again and again during Drive.
…this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom…
Our first shot of The Kid is from behind. This jacket is his uniform, it’s just about his only expression of self beyond the toothpicks he carries around and his driving gloves (also part of the uniform). Otherwise he wears an anonymous haircut, white t-shirts and jeans. He wants to be anonymous. But as he goes through the film’s narrative, he seems to take on an ever more heroic stature.
He shows Irene and Benicio kindness and attention, helping with the shopping, taking them out of their apartment. He sacrifices himself for her husband, getting into ‘one last job’; not to win Irene’s affection, but so that she might get some security and happiness with ‘Standard’. But it’s clear from the first time we see the two men together that The Kid is most definitely ‘the deluxe version’.
The relationship with Irene is developed wonderfully, almost wordlessly. They seek each other out as she goes to his garage and he visits her diner. He shows them oases of calm within the city, almost as a promise of something better to come. He seems like a child with Benicio, talking about cartoons, discussing what makes a good guy or a bad guy, and how you can tell.
The first half of the scene in the lift is astonishing in both its tension and the climax of Irene and The Kid’s relationship. Finally he initiates physical intimacy with another person.
But seconds later he is literally stamping out the threat to Irene, smashing the skull of a man he’d never seen until moments before, just like Nicolas Cage at the start of Wild at Heart… He steps back, barely out of breath, still lit in golden hues. Irene steps away silently, horrified, into the car park. She’s in blue and the car park is dark. The door closes and she is gone.
From here he becomes the ultimate anonymous weapon, donning a full-head prosthetic mask, further isolating him from reality, and also sending him deeper into this emotionless, hard-to-read place. In casting Gosling, Nicolas Winding Refn has thrown the audience a Michael-Haneke-like problem: he’s a deeply difficult character to like, he does repellent things, but at the same time he looks like Ryan Gosling and he seems to be trying so hard to do the right thing. But in the mask he looks like a serial killer in a horror movie.
As the gangster narrative twists and escalates, The Kid seeks out his next move almost without thinking. He moves up the levels like a video game, from the intruders in the motel, to Cook, to the scene in the lift, to Nino and finally Bernie Rose, the boss. He confronts these dangerous men head-on, and they often don’t know how to deal with him. Nino mocks him with
You’re not very good at this, are you?
But The Kid is at least quite good at what he’s doing, improvising with hammers, curtain poles, fists, feet and cars to achieve his mission. He has no superpowers, but he seems to survive when he has no right to. Even right at the climax, after we’ve seen him stabbed in the gut, we cut to see him motionless in his driver’s seat, motionless for what feels like minutes. There’s no apparent breathing as the camera holds and holds on his face. Until he blinks, at last, and he’s resurrected.
Drive has elements of horror, heist, one-last-job, mobsters, action, romance, fantasy, damsel-in-distress all crammed into its taut 100 minute runtime. But it never feels crowded or messy. It’s almost inevitable the way the story escalates, and the stakes are threateningly clear throughout. There’s not a single superfluous shot or line. Even the repeated cityscapes and driving montages serve to present the world and The Kid’s smallness within it, yet within this story he is truly larger than life. We know almost nothing about him, and by the end we’re still struggling with whether he is a real hero, a good guy, or even a real human being.