Film Review by Lauren Randall
Back in 1978 western and noir aficionado Walter Hill directed Ryan O’Neal in The Driver, a film about a getaway driver pursued by a corrupt cop through the dark streets of L.A. Following the lead of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1968) and predating the likes of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A (1985), the film was both stylish and grimy, a neon-lit look at the underbelly of seventies’ California anchored by its nameless protagonist, a hark back to the Eastwood archetype. Fast-forward over thirty years, and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has produced a similar love-letter to cars and crime in the city of angels with Drive, the slickest, smartest urban-noir of the 21st century.
Drive quickly hits top gear with a blood-pumping pre-credits sequence pulsing with style and tension. After his laconic voice-over outlines his getaway rules – there’s a five minute window: no more, no less – the nameless Driver (Ryan Gosling) flexes his leather gloves, chews on a toothpick and carries out one heck of a job, outsmarting the cops as well as outdriving them as he helps a couple of thieves escape through the asphalt jungle with his hypnotic car-trickery. This guy isn’t just good. He’s the best.
The sequence climaxes with a series of beautiful, equally entrancing sweeping shots of night-time L.A. (thanks in part to the glorious work of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel), set to electro-pulse synth and punctuated with neon-pink credits as the Driver returns home alone. This is Refn’s sleight of hand: Drive is as American as it is European, as modern as it is retro, a love-child of 80s B-movie thrillers and noughties arthouse cinema.
It also has a plot that would be at home in any pulp novel. Cannily adapted from James Sallis’ non-linear novel, Hossein Amini’s screenplay builds its foundations upon the murky fairytales of American cinema. Balancing his criminal night-time activities with his day-job as a Hollywood stunt racer, the Driver’s life is upturned irrevocably by the feelings he develops for his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan). Sweet and vulnerable rather than a femme fatale, Irene and her son Benecio form a close bond with the Driver until her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns from prison. Forced by his old gang to pay back a debt, he calls upon the Driver to help him protect his family by working with him on one last heist.
Clichéd? Undeniably so, but Drive plays with its origins rather than bows down to them, a technique Refn imbues in every faction of the film, even the casting. Mulligan does a fine job with what could have potentially been a wallpaper role, as does her on-screen husband Isaac who makes his ex-con more humanely flawed than perhaps anticipated. Just as good are the television triumvirate of Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman, all playing slightly skewed stock noir characters.
It’s Albert Brooks though who nearly steals the whole film, playing so far against type as a chilling Hollywood producer/mobster that you have to keep reminding yourself that it is actually the lovely, singing, sweating journalist from Broadcast News stabbing forks in people’s faces.
Yet, for all of Brooks’ swagger and malice, there’s no doubting that this is Gosling’s film. Decked out in eighties aviators and a scorpion-emblazoned silver silk jacket he certainly looks the part, commanding the screen with a fine balance of charisma and restraint, just like the elite cinema antiheroes of Shane and Travis Bickle. Gosling acts with his eyes more than dialogue, every blink and stare perfectly executing the depth of the Driver’s love for Irene, the wariness betraying his ice-cool composure, the struggle to contain his own demons.
These inevitably surface in the second half of the film with the violence escalating to extremes as Driver seeks to both protect Irene and enact vengeance, a move that would have been less believable and palatable were it not for Gosling’s performance and Refn’s direction. Though overly-excessive for some, bone-crunching head-stomps and bullet-ripped brain matter are shot as disturbingly beautifully as any of the doe-eyed romance scenes.
One criticism that may be levelled against Drive is that, beneath the stylistic flourishes, it’s a little, well, pointless. Whilst Refn creates a visually stimulating film, there is no denying that story-telling gives way to a straight-forward revenge-narrative. But Refn never pretends otherwise. The film is what it is: a striking, startling homage to urban noir. As the Driver says when asked what he does: “I drive”. And he does. And it’s stunning.