Drive is essentially a character piece in which the main protagonist starts off having almost literally no character whatsoever. He is completely blank and unemotional. He has no name that’s shared with us. His history starts when he walked into a local garage and asked for a job six years ago. He has no family, no friends. When setting up his next job as a getaway driver, he recites his terms to a new client in a dispassionate monotone and throughout the job itself his stony face never betrays his thoughts or feelings. He is presented as almost borderline autistic in his emotional incapabilities. And yet such minimalism of character is utterly compelling in an era of the usually absurdly overblown exaggeration.
Then he meets his next door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benecio, and he makes – possibly for the first time in his adult life – a connection, hesitant and wordless as it is to start with. When we subsequently see him with Benicio on the couch, both of them watching cartoons and a daffy but open and genuine grin on Ryan Gosling’s face, it’s as though he’s finally acquiring a personality for himself for the very first time. This developing friendship with the mother and son, the possible love affair with Irene and surrogate fathership toward Benicio, is meticulously built up over nearly half the film and is almost engaging and powerful enough to carry an entire movie in its own right.
And then things go horribly wrong; and that initially blank, then sweet and caring nameless getaway driver with the daffy grin is suddenly propelled into some quite shockingly appalling actions, as the film becomes an all-out action/revenge thriller. Having seen his softer domestic side earlier, it’s difficult to know how we are supposed to react to the driver’s psychopathic actions later on as he grows increasingly unravelled, dishevelled and blood-stained. Ultimately the plot echoes the fable of the scorpion (explicitly shown in the design on the back of the driver’s distinctive bowling jacket) and the frog, in which the scorpion dooms them both because it’s unable to defy its own deadly nature. It’s no comfort at all to us that the driver is forced into it by the violent actions of others, who include Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks on excellent form as local gangsters. Bryan Cranston is also terrific as the driver’s boss Shannon, a smalltime crook with big-time ambitions and industrial quantities of chronic bad luck.
While watching Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a modern, hip young Michael Mann at work. The film has the cutting stylish edge of Miami Vice at its height, and the night time scenes on the LA streets reminded me of Mann’s later Collateral (Jamie Foxx chauffeuring hitman Tom Cruise through the neon-lit streets of LA.) One scene set on a beach at night is illuminated by the strobing rays from a light house, which reminded me of Heat and the final showdown between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro lit by the landing lights of airplanes arriving at LAX. I’m a big Mann fan, so the comparison is meant as a compliment, but Mann did get rather too big, epic and grandiose, too overblown and engorged on his own achingly sharp style. Drive on the other hand is back to basics: lean and realistic, packing a punch while looking incredibly cool with a street-smart rather than Versace sensibility. The film has gorgeous shots of LA at night; makes creative use of mirrors and reflections; the lighting and cinematography is sumptuous throughout. It’s a film that demands to be seen in high-definition and is served well by the immaculate Blu-ray transfer. But what is actually being shown to us are very ordinary, everyday scenes of LA with little inherent beauty: shabby apartment blocks, rundown parking lots and pawn shops, dusty roads and greasy garages, cheap clothes and average cars.
Similarly the acting is both highly stylistic and simultaneously natural. There are long pauses where people simply stand and look at each other; but rather than coming across like a scene from a portentous, self-indulgent art house movie it instead feels like a painfully awkward genuine moment between two embarrassed and self-conscious real people. Other scenes are played out in near real time, which introduces long spells of people waiting and watching: not only does this allow the characters to develop in the most subtle ways, it also hugely raises the tension at crucial points – none more so than in the gripping opening pre-title sequence which follows the getaway driver at work during and after a heist.
Overall it’s a film that defies expectations every chance it gets. Whenever you expect the film to take one turn – such as when Irene’s husband returns and you’re expecting an alpha male macho showdown between him and the driver – it doesn’t. The characters shock and surprise you just like people do in real life. Things happen that you don’t expect, or not when or how you expect them. For a film about a getaway driver, the driving scenes are unexpectedly short and fewer than you would imagine; the driver tends to outthink his competition rather than simply going flat-out for speed like any one of a hundred car chase movies would surely do. But crucially, the film doesn’t let us down or disappoint us while it’s playing its head games with us.
This isn’t some big, all-time classic film. It’s small and lean (just 100 minutes is a perfect length in these bloated times) and cheaply shot (not that you’d know it) and all those silences and real time sequences mean that the story never has the space to amount to more than ‘slender’. Carey Mulligan is saddled with a stereotyped “saintly mother and wife” role while the only other female role (Blanche, played by Christina Hendricks) is little more than a cameo. It’s very much a guy film, although Gosling’s early tender scenes with Irene and Benicio will certainly help keep his well-established romantic appeal to the female audience alive and well for a good time to come.
All in all it seems strange that Drive has been quite as lauded and praised as it has, since basically it’s an old-style film noir pulp thriller with not much more underneath its impressive style and magnetic central performance. For some people, that cocktail will still be more than enough to make this a four star film; I’m happy to be in that camp, but also vaguely puzzled that so many other people are, too.