Adjust your expectations. Drive won the Best Director at Cannes for Nicolas Winding Refn earlier this year but it is not the usual festival-friendly artsy movie. To avoid the fate of being on the wrong side of history, the Robert De Niro-led jury made the obvious decision by handing out the prestigious Palme d’Or to the philosophically ambitious The Tree of Life, which is arguably the most anticipated film at Cannes in recent memory. I can imagine that the gesture of rewarding Refn’s action thriller was the jury’s subtle way to claim they can appreciate an entertaining studio flick as much as a high-minded artsy drama. And what a way to stick it to the controversial Lars von Trier by crowning another Dane?
After making a name for himself in his homeland with the Pusher trilogy, which chronicles the Copenhagen’s underground world of pimps and drug lords, the Dane has found further success with his stylized violence in the British film Bronson, a biopic of the titular career criminal played by Tom Hardy, whose stock has skyrocketed later for his role in Inception. In his stateside debut, Refn continues his streak of gory spectacles. Starring indie darling Ryan Gosling, Drive’s storyline is the classic noir formula. Guy falls for girl and takes a big risk for her but ends up paying a steep price for the troubles. In the case of Gosling’s anonymous driver, the quiet loner is a mechanic and part-time stun drive by day and getaway driver for criminals by night. He never loses his cool and is always in control. Then he meets and falls in love with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), whose father Standard (Oscar Issac) is serving time in prison. The film’s tone shifts to a much dark shade soon after Standard came home, when the self-sacrificing Driver decides to help him in a heist after the ex-con and his family was threatened by his former crime boss, Cook (James Biberi).
The film’s opening heist sequence, which depicts Gosling and company smartly dodging from the police in downtown Los Angeles, almost misleads me to believe Drive will be a cerebral thriller. The shit hits the fan quick when Standard and Driver’s pawn shop robbery went awry. Refn switches gear in spectacular fashion with the film’s most purist Hollywood car chase that is more Bullitt than Fast and the Furious. Stripped of any of the music that plays a prominent role in the rest of the movie, the car chase is all muscle and none of the unnecessarily gimmick. Two relatively modest cars, a Mustang and a Chrysler, duke it out the old school way in the highways of Los Angeles that would make William Friedkin proud. There is nothing outrageously creative in the scene, but Refn understands execution trumps invention when it comes to genre exercise.
In many ways, Drive is a series of very elaborate set pieces that showcases Refn’s vibrant use of violence to punctuate the film’s fatalist undercurrent. The Danish auteur displays considerably more flair in the subsequent sequences, starting with the motel shootout that follows the aforementioned car chase. Judging by the audience’s reaction in the preview screening I attended, many were startled by the sudden turn for the gore when most of them were expecting for free entertainment in the form of some pre-packaged popcorn thrills. Much like Driver’s blood-soaked face at the end of the shootout, my fellow viewers (and their infants) were in for a ride that had more than they bargained for.
Drive only gets more violent from there and it will surely turn off many who does not have the stomach for it. However, it is hard to not give credit to Refn for being such a devil for skillfully wrapping his poison with a pretty candy wrapper. When the poker-faced Driver threatens Cook in a strip club dressing room with a bullet and a hammer, the setting is elaborate and carefully designed. Surrounded by bright lights, mirrors and naked women (who defies logic by sitting calmly as Driver holds Cook down), the sequence is menacing and glamorous at the same time. The elevator fight scene is the most stylized of Drive’s set pieces. First, Driver and Irene’s kiss is cued by dramatic lighting change and background music, then scene turns from romantic to chaotic with a slow-motion combat. Many of these highlights of the film are featured in the trailer, which I suggest you to avoid for the sake of preserving all the fun for the actual viewing.
Refn’s amusing mise en scène ensures Drive won’t become just another Jason Statham-type movie and his use of ultra violence will please the fans of Park Chan-Wook and Quentin Tarantino. I can also sense a hint of Eighties action movie in the veins of Michael Mann’s Thief and Drive’s hot pink title in a cursive font definitely reeks of that era. Channeling the style of Western civilization’s most embarrassingly decadent decade is not easy and Refn does it with a suitable dosage of faux-Eighties instead of taking a straight shot of I-Love-the-80s. The synth-influenced soundtrack composed by Cliff Martinez, keeps the film marching to the beat and the of synth-pop songs by lesser-know bands breaks the tiresome habit of studio films using ten seconds of the hippest hits of the moment. The scorpion on the back of Driver’s jacket serves as a neat little tribute to Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising), the pioneer of utilizing pop songs in film.
Gosling operates out of his usual heartthrob roles (The Notebook, Blue Valentine) as the man without a name in Drive. The part is tricky because he has very little dialogue or expression to convey, which can easily be the type of generic action hero that Keanu Reeves is known for. Nor does he possess the sort of badass persona of Clint Eastwood. Fortunately, his innate sensitivity provides a bit of unexpected depth to this blank slate of a character, making his fateful turn to darkness a grimmer transformation. Even though the film is not meant to be a piece of contemplative cinema, most of the supporting cast proves to be ample ammunition to keep this bloodbath rolling. Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman executes in their usual fine form, but Albert Brooks, who plays the ruthless crime boss Bernie Rose, steals the show with his shockingly brutal and scary performance— a brilliant casting move that is against the type of funny guy roles Brooks is used to play. Sadly, the female characters are given the pedestrian treatment: Blanche (Christina Hendricks) is a robbery accomplice in high heels that plays no important part to the story; Carey Mulligan, a promising talent whose recent career is marked by too many interchangeable roles as the love interest, is given little to work with. Such is the fate of many women in a noir film—looking pretty and pretty dull. On that note, Drive almost comes across as a parody of chivalry.