Quentin Tarantino did not reach his unique plane of influence or popularity for his looks or people skills (his best interviews evolve into glorious exercises in sibilation and gesticulation). No, he just knows how to wield a camera well, and how to implement bold post-production techniques to realize his crazy vision. It’s all about style, baby.
Hailing from Denmark is a man who lives these truths. Nicolas Winding Refn directs Drive with an eerie amount of confidence and talent to back up the chutzpah. Sure, Ryan Gosling may be behind the literal wheel in the story but it is Refn who does the steering.
With all that said, Drive is a different beast. A title like that conjures up images of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker piloting sports cars in kinetic chase sequences in a story geared for sequential exploitation. Nothing of the sort here. Sure, the few driving scenes are superb, but they aim for suspense rather than stimulation, achieved through the age-old adage “less is more.” The film takes its time. Editor Matthew Newman scales back transitions more than you would expect, to the point of discomfort. The first thirty-odd minutes move with little energy or seeming motive, but they effectively establish an almost hypnotic mood, that cushions the viewer into a false sense of security. At the point when it all comes crashing down, the film still moves with lethargy, but a new flame burns in its eyes. To quote Leo DiCaprio from The Departed, “Your heart rate is jacked. And your hand, steady.”
Plot summary for the sake of plot summary will not acquaint you with the workings of the film. Just know there is a man with no name, blessed with divine driving skills and thus known to us as Driver, played by a nearly mute Ryan Gosling, and he gets himself into trouble. He wants to protect a married woman (Carey Mulligan), and their love grows from lengthy stares into each others’ eyes. There are angry folks: gangsters played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, the latter whose temper rivals Joe Pesci’s on poker night. There are nice guys, like Bryan Cranston, but I’ve never seen the Breaking Bad actor so feeble since he had Jane Kaczmarek for a TV wife. These auxiliary characters serve only to stimulate the plot and not much more. Of course, there are moments of acting brilliance — Brooks has never been this delightfully menacing, and Gosling conveys everything from bliss to fury with nothing more than his expressions — but the characters are not what carries this film.
Everyone behind the camera contributes to the aura — perhaps the word is “mystique?” — this film exudes. Cinematographer Newton Sigel works wonders with lighting in the elevator scene that, from Hossein Amini’s script, progresses so atypically it may put the audience into shock. The costumes, designed by Erin Benach, are attractive as well as appropriately symbolic. That scorpion design on the back of Driver’s jacket speaks volumes that more than compensate for the character’s taciturn nature. Sound design crafts the ultimate suspense as Driver sits in his car, waiting, while a constant ticking noise steadily ties your stomach in knots. Cliff Martinez’s score lends a broad ambience to the drama, and Refn’s choice of obscure 80’s synth and disco cuts underline the intended retro style of the film.
Pink, gaudy font for the opening credits may remind gamers of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, as will the police-evading car chases.
Much like the GTA series, this film is violent. Shockingly brutal, even. Gunshots, stabs and especially stomps enact devastating carnage upon those in contact. The minds behind the camera wisely cut away from the most gruesome sights quickly so as to let the viewer fill in the rest of the image. It may be a more unsettling technique than letting us see the carnage. The violence, in its context and intensity, escalates Drive from a standard crime film to a strangely calm, mesmerizing B-movie. The term is not to undermine the film; it is not unlike the Korean classic Oldboy in its use of slick technique and brutal violence to hold up a pulp premise. (Also, both protagonists wreak hell with a hammer). However, it is lacking a quality that might rank it with the greats. The greatest films that contain gratuitous violence also talk about it, ask the unheard question: why? Why must it be this way, to this degree? Pulp Fiction, Fargo, even the recent In Bruges all tackle this question. None has an answer. But it is the ability to propose those inquiries, adding intellectual weight under the hood, that places them in the higher pantheon of cinematic achievement.
It’s action, revenge, romance, thriller, drama, yet none of those genres. It is simply Drive. Gosling excels in expressionist acting (the anger he communicates with his clenched fist in the strip club scene is shocking), but Refn gifts this film its greatest qualities. Style, when slick and innovative, can hypnotize and reel in the audience. As a result, due reason or philosophical depth may be lacking. But when a scene — such as when Driver confronts Nico (Perlman) in the dead of the night, with only a Riz Orlotani opera piece playing, lighting faint, shots haunting yet oddly calming — is formed so well that you reach a level of ineffable emotional transcendence... well, I guess not much else matters.