Director: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Screenplay: Hossein Amini.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks, Kaden Leos, Jeff Wolfe, James Biberi, Russ Tamblyn.
“I give you five minutes when we get there. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything a minute on either side of that and you’re on your own. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. I drive”
In 2008, just three years after the publication of James Sallis’ crime novel Drive, Universal Studios got behind the idea of a film adaptation. Originally, director Neil Marshall was to take the reigns and craft an L.A-set action mystery with Hugh Jackman as the lead. Two years later, this proposed plan collapsed and in stepped Ryan Gosling. With a spate of successful films and strong performances already behind him, Gosling was an actor in high demand and for the first time in his career he was given the opportunity to choose who would direct the film. Already a big admirer of his work, he chose Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. The film was eventually released in 2011 to mass acclaim and struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. Not only was Refn awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival but the film received a 15 minute standing ovation.
‘Driver’ (Ryan Gosling) is a man of few words and keeps to himself while working for his mechanic friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who also gets him some Hollywood stunt man jobs. By night, though, he makes his real money in the criminal underworld as a top-flight getaway driver who lives by a strict code. However, when he develops an affection for his next-door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) he is drawn into helping her ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac) who has brought unwanted attention and conflict to their doorstep from the local thugs and menacing mafia figures.There’s a moment in Drive – and it happens within minutes of it opening – that you realise you could be in for something very special. From the offset we find ourselves amidst a heist. This is no ordinary take on a heist, however. We never actually see what is going on during the robbery. All we see is a silent driver, waiting in a car, ready to make a getaway when the looters return to the vehicle. It’s hugely effective in allowing us to see things from our main characters point of view and this absolutely gripping and adrenaline filled introduction sets a precedent for what is to come in Refn’s abundantly stylish, art-house thriller.It doesn’t stop there, though. Directly following this, a kitsch, vibrant pink credit sequence is thrust onto the screen as synthpop artist Kavinsky blares his catchy, 80’s inspired, track Nightcall overhead. Make no mistake, Drive oozes cool and should be viewed and listened to with the best of screens and speakers available. You can actually feel your senses heightening and the excitement setting in.As much as Refn has said the film is dedicated to the existentialism of Alejandro Jodorowsky (as was Gosling and Refn’s later collaboration Only God Forgives) there are numerous references and influences from a number of films and filmmakers; from car movies like Peter Yates’ Bullitt, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop and Walter Hill’s The Driver there are also beautiful night shots of L.A. that are reminiscent of the cityscapes of Michael Mann’s Thief or Heat. The influences even extend to Gosling’s unnamed character. He has been likened to Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti westerns due to his lack of verbal communication but, in terms of living by a strong moral code, he also shares similarities with the lone-warrior mythology of Alain Delon’s hitman, Jef Costello, from Jean Pierre-Melville’s French classic Le Samouraï. Despite all of these influences, though, Drive still stands as a film in its own right. The story arc is nothing new, as the aforementioned films and filmmakers attest to, but what makes Drive tick is it’s approach. This is a film steeped in mood and atmosphere which is thanks, in large, to Newton Thomas Sigel’s gorgeous cinematography where each moment is expressively captured. Even when the characters say nothing, Refn and Sigel’s decision to linger long on shots seems to suggest their innermost thoughts purely by capturing a protracted gaze and Cliff Martinez provides a haunting music score that compliments the striking visuals onscreen. There are also numerous moments of ethereal beauty and just when you’re settling into it’s meditative tone, you’re exposed to sudden fulminations of brutal violence – the momentary or seemingly deliberate pace it had, making the unrelenting savagery all the more intense and effective.
Refn’s unique and poetic approach to the genre also extends to his approach on casting. No tapes or auditions were used; with the exception of Gosling, all actors would meet with the director and he would cast them on the spot – if he felt they were right. This results in a rich collection of performers where no one puts a foot wrong:
The always excellent Bryan Cranston (supposedly ad-libbing most of his lines) pitches in a desperate and downtrodden character and manages to convey a certain world weariness and sadness in where he has come to be in his life. Fresh from her leading actress Oscar nomination for An Education, Carey Mulligan exudes the requisite vulnerability and sensitivity as her innocence is swamped with the depravity and violence around her. Largely unknown at the time, Oscar Isaac turns a very flat underwritten character into a three-dimensional one (that wasn’t originally in the script). He brings a charismatic, family man edge to his role and steers him away from the archetypal ex-con. He’s hardly in the movie but makes an important contribution and shows why he’s now a well respected performer. The same could be said for Christina Hendricks, she has less than a handful of small scenes with sparse dialogue but she still impresses. Normally associated with comedic roles, Albert Brooks plays it convincingly against type and delivers a menacing villain while his henchman in Ron Perlman adds the requisite presence and ferocity to compliment Brooks’ cold calculation. Despite having the most screen time, however, you could say that Gosling actually has less to work with. Being a man of few words, he has to base his performance on mannerisms and subtle facial expressions and he does so with understated brilliance. If you’re seeing Drive for the first time then Gosling probably won’t stand out as anything special but on repeat viewings it’s clear just how commanding a performance he delivers. He can effortlessly act with his eyes alone which allows his silence to speak volumes and with the very nature and mood of the film’s dependency on a minimalist lead, Gosling captures it perfectly.There’s a particular understanding and crucial tone to the performances that are fully in tune with Refn’s rhythm and elegant, art-house style. He takes a mainstream American idea and defies conventions by putting a European spin on it while employing existentialism and ambiguity as key factors in his vision. This is the very basis that makes Drive such a success. It’s respectful to it’s audience and turns a tried-and-tested storyline into something fresh and exciting.
A sophisticated, ultra-violent neo-noir that manages to combine a tender love story with intense action set-pieces, while channeling an artistic creativity. To put it simply, it’s the best film of 2011 and one of the very best in recent years.Mark Walker
Trivia: Driver references the fable of The Scorpion and the Frog: the frog agrees to carry the scorpion across the river; the scorpion stings the frog, saying “it’s my nature” and both drown. Driver can be seen as The Frog of the story – he drives/carries criminals (scorpions) around in his car, but is inevitably dragged into their destructive world (stung) leading to everybody’s downfall. Driver’s jacket has a scorpion on the back, just as the frog carried the scorpion on its back.