To live is to drive. At least, that’s the impression you get watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s film. Our (anti) hero, who has no name but is played by the increasingly impressive Ryan Gosling, feels at home only when behind the wheel. After driving the getaway car during a thrilling opening car chase, he arrives back to his sparse apartment, lit only by the neon of the city outside. Standing alone in his room, his shadow beamed on the bare walls, he surveys his surroundings briefly before walking out. For him, the road is where he belongs.
There have been many films over the years that speak of a yearning for the open road. Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise both feature vistas of wide open spaces and use the road as a metaphor for a feeling of disconnection from the outside world. Drive differs in that we don’t see those vistas; instead we are there in the car with Gosling. We are the passenger, glimpsing our hero from side-on or in the rear view mirror.
Drive is littered with so many movie references that it reads like a film student’s wet dream. The comparison to a western is an obvious one – a lone ranger fighting injustice and saving the innocent woman and child from the bad guys. The frothy pink font of the credits and the bright lights of L.A. bring to mind ‘80s Michael Mann, as well as the monotonous synth-pop beats of the soundtrack. One particularly strong scene in an elevator is reminiscent of In the Mood for Love, as is the frequent skulking in hallways.
Partly what I love about filmmaking is the craft itself. I love seeing a director’s vision, and this film feels as if it’s been storyboarded to death. Not one scene on the screen is accidental –Refn has planned every shot and lighting set-up with such thought and attention to detail that it feels beautiful in its exactness.
Finally shirking off the poster-boy image he acquired with The Notebook, Gosling rounds off a trilogy of mature turns in Half Nelson and Blue Valentine with a performance of brooding intensity. He manages to bring a little soul to what could have been an empty and two-dimensional character. Gosling is an actor who can do so much with minimal effort; there are no theatrics here. Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks put in decent efforts as the token females, respectively playing the underwritten mother in trouble and femme fatale roles with reliable skill. Male supporting performances are also stellar from Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston.
Yes, this film is violent. Whether it is gratuitous is the topic of another discussion entirely, but personally, those scenes don’t remain with me. However, they are not without consequence, as the aforementioned elevator scene demonstrates (no plot spoilers here).
With Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn proved he had promise. With Drive, he manages to create a pulp noir that succeeds in being slick and stylish, but without selling its heart and soul. He might just prove to be the filmmaker Tarantino could have been.