I have started writing this review of Drive four separate times. I’ve deleted it three times because I am finding it difficult to articulate my thoughts and feelings about it and still manage to be coherent in so doing. But I have an obligation, I feel, to make a genuine effort to convey how the movie affected me, so here I go again. Be warned, there are significant spoilers after the jump.
Maybe it’s the just-a-bit-too-on-the-nose lyrics of the 80s inspired euro-synth-pop. Or maybe it’s the hot pink Risky Business-derived font. Or maybe it’s the pastel color palette (including the aforementioned pink) that recalls the best of Michael Mann’s films from the 80s. Or the minimalist plotting and deft character work from the supporting cast. I can’t pin it down precisely. Whatever it is that made me fall in love with Drive, it worked.
The plot is bare bones minimalism. Driver (Ryan Gosling), a movie stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver, falls in love with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), and gets into some serious trouble trying to protect her from some enemies of her newly-released from prison husband, Standard. Gosling’s performance is so understated and cool – just like the high gloss surface of a finely tuned sports car – that he almost seems to not be doing anything but smirking every once in a while as a way of differentiating his feelings toward Irene from his normal existentialist glare.
The supporting cast is where the heart of the film lies, giving us some counterbalance to that polished sheen of Driver. His employer Shannon (an always terrific Bryan Cranston), a limping auto mechanic who soups up cars for both the movies and for the getaways, is a tragic character, only wanting to do right by his friends and make a bit of money for himself. When he gets Driver tangled up with his boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Bernie’s partner, Nino (Ron Perlman), as an investment in stock car racing, he has no idea that it will turn out to be Nino that is targeting Driver and tying up loose ends. Shannon’s death – no surprise there, really – is the most realistic and startling in the film, sudden and quiet. There are no last minute talks with his protege about honor or duty or anything that might be found in countless other films, only the reality of his mortality, dying at the hands of an old friend who is doing what he feels he must to survive.
Which brings me to the violence of the film, which is Cronenbergian in its ability to show up unannounced, bursting into everyday life at the drop of a hat, and always horrific, pulpy, wet, and real. Nicolas Winding Refn, the director, has made a career out of examining violence and masculinity on screen. His previous features, the Pusher series, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising, made striking use of violence and graphic content to create a palpable atmosphere of dread and uncertainty. Here, the idea remains the same. After a gorgeously composed slow-motion shot of Christina Hendricks’s Blanche getting her head blown off by a shotgun in a motel bathroom by one of Nino’s henchmen and Driver’s knock-down fight for his life, the film becomes noticeably darker and more horrifying, shocking and, as critic Jim Emerson has noted (in his excellent reaction essay on the film, “Yellow light, red light, blue light, pink light“), its color palette changes a bit, too, becoming “pregnant with red.” It really is a noticeable presence. Driver’s descent can quite literally be seen and traced in the increasingly prominent blood spatters on his white jacket.
The violence of the film is actually more subtle than even that description allows, earning much of its shock and disgust from actually being shocking and disgusting. The camera doesn’t linger on the gore, it simply shows the reality, slow-motion or regular speed. Even the shot with Hendricks described above is less graphic than imagined, as the slow-motion, while certainly emphasizing the detail of the violence recorded, quickly cuts away to Driver in the next room.
In many ways the use of slow-motion in a Refn film functions like a version of David Lynch’s trademark calm before the storm sequences, where normalcy quickly devolves into terror and dread and occasionally brutal acts of wanton violence. Think of Dean Stockwell’s lip synch to Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet, or any number of startling things in Wild at Heart and you get the picture. When Driver moves Irene into a corner and turns to kiss her in slow-motion in an elevator, you know things aren’t going to end well for the other guy going down with them. In a film that takes so many of its visual and aural cues from 80s films, it’s fitting that a nod should be paid to some of the seminal works from the decade in all the fetishizing of Michael Mann that seems to be going on at surface level.
That kiss in the elevator is also one of the most beautiful cinema moments I’ve experienced this year. The composition, the lighting, Driver’s white scorpion jacket, the slow-motion – it’s pure cinema, which is rare enough these days. And there are a lot of moments like this that crop up, totally affecting, completely indescribable. Such shots are the essence of photogenie, pure filmic expression. I can’t get enough of them.
One final thing that stands out in the movie is the emphasis – some might say fetishization – of objects, particularly clothing. That scorpion jacket keeps popping in and out of frame, given a different prominence in the shot all the time. There are also the driving gloves, which Driver straps on any time he has to get down to business, almost triggering another aspect of his personality, a much darker and tortured realm, to move to the fore and help him do things he has no choice but to follow through with. These are just major examples, but there are countless more: Bernie’s knives and razors, the toothpick, Irene’s ring, Christina Hendricks’s unbelievably red hair, and so on. Each piece of clothing and each personal object seems to inform the essence of the character in charge of them, which is a nice touch in a movie that already deals in archetype more than fully developed personalities.
Drive is a terrific experience. It may be my favorite thing I have seen all year, though it has been a while since Hanna had its chance to make an impression on me. In many ways the two make an interesting set of companions. Both are fairytales, at least aesthetically, and each, like the Grimm stories particularly, are unafraid of looking into the abyss and occasionally pondering what awaits in its depths. There are also echoes of other existential road movies, not the least of which is The Driver, that Walter Hill directed exercise in minimalism that has its fingerprints all over these proceedings. That isn’t to say that we are left with an unoriginal mess, but instead that the real beauty of the film is in its ability to mix in so many elements and still manage to seem fresh and vital. See Drive. I can’t promise you’ll love it, or even like it, but is a movie that begs to be experienced.
Theatrical Release; 5/5 stars.