Nicolas Winding Refn, winner of Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, has crafted a truly exceptional neo-noir with his latest effort Drive. Harking back to the traditional breed of action cinema like Bullitt, the Pusher and Valhalla Rising director puts us into the passenger seat alongside Ryan Gosling who plays an unnamed Hollywood stuntman moonlighting as a getaway driver.Spending his nights cruising the streets of Refn’s glossy yet besmirched streets of Los Angeles – a vision that bears similarity the classic West Coast crime epics by Michael Mann – our unnamed driver’s life exists solely behind the wheel of his car. With an empty apartment and his only personal attachment being his manager Shannon, impeccably performed by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, being enclosed within his vehicle is he is most content.
This all changes, however, when our hero encounters his fragile neighbor Irene, a single mother trying to raise her child while her husband, Standard, serves the last stretch of his custodial sentence. Upon his release Standard is threatened by a gang to whom he owed money in prison and warned that failure to pay back the absurd debt could hinder Irene and her son’s safety. The driver helps Standard to do a job for them to work off the debt, but when things go horribly wrong, he must take Irene’s welfare into his own hands…
Carey Mulligan brings Irene to life in a display that is entirely opposite yet equally as brilliant as her Oscar nominated turn in An Education. The tremendous romantic chemistry that exists between Drive’s two protagonists in its first half is the anchor that holds this narrative in place.
Nonetheless, in an almost wordless role, it’s Ryan Gosling who shines here as the driver. After showing his talent for comedy earlier this summer with the fantastic Crazy Stupid Love, it’s mesmerizing how effortlessly he embodies such a dissimilar character. One who is entirely likeable for his humanity and heartfelt affection for Irene, but with the blink of an eye is able to bring a frightening and psychotic intensity that is every bit as shocking as some of cinema’s greatest villains.
As Refn brilliantly pulls off a complete narrative U-turn for the film’s gratuitously violent and spectacularly bloody final hour, Gosling’s calculated emotionlesness while blood splatters across the screen and faces are literally blasted off is utterly compelling. Though possibly too dark for the Academy, it’s a turn that is highly deserving of an Oscar nomination.
Nicolas Winding Refn equally merits some accolades for his terrific work behind the camera, displaying moments of cinematic genius that will have any cinema lover in awe. His handing of the suspense in a stunning opening chase scene shows the mark of a truly talented filmmaker. Shooting the sequence solely within the driver’s car and brilliantly exercising editing, cinematography, score and even the car’s radio to amplify the tension to nail-biting proportions, it’s cinema as its purest and most exciting.
For a film so embroiled in 1980s nostalgia moreover – with neon lights, a synth pop soundtrack and the lead character sporting a silver scorpion jacket – it’s a wonder that Drive never falls into parody. But Refn’s aplomb control over the film as both director and co-writer means it remains from start to finish a serious work of cinema.
A film with a mass appeal that will certainly become something of a classic, Drive rightly deserves to be regarded as one of the films of the year.