Genre sensibilities are turned inside out with Drive, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s muted modern-day take on the celebrated neo-noir film.
Hollywood stunt-driver by day, getaway driver-for-hire by night, Ryan Gosling’s unnamed character is shrouded in mystery. He subscribes to a methodical lifestyle, timing everything to perfect precision. When he meets his coy next-door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), he finds himself wrapped up in her husband’s (Oscar Issac) unfortunate – and criminal – predicament. Forced to abandon his scrupulous attitude, he must adopt a much more reckless way of life.
Unlike typical action-lead crime-thrillers, Drive takes on a more serene, peripheral approach, introducing us to “Driver” through his various tendencies and strict rules. It’s only when his refined lifestyle is thwarted that we’re treated to a more rounded picture, but even then it’s more about the madness that erupts around him than within him – something that mimics the lawbreaking taking place in pitch-perfect Los Angeles. Hossein Amini’s script, loosely based on James Sallis’ neo-noir novel, revels in the calamity of “Driver’s” elusive ideals. Dialogue and plot points are kept to the minimum, with Clint Martinez’ beautifully executed and shady soundtrack used instead to perpetuate the well-established equilibrium and thrust the narrative from one end of the spectrum – the indifferent introductory scene – to another – the unexpected accents of raw violence.
Refn distinctively pits an ostentatious L.A. against its destructively obvious yet shockingly omitted underbelly. Drive is nothing short of an intoxicating experience that has his directorial style imprinted on it from start to finish. From each meticulously filmed, lit, and arranged shot to the next, the scenes exude a distinctiveness and ardor that speaks louder than words ever could. Refn works valiantly to establish and sustain the low-key, atmospheric tone that’s set up by the introductory sequence. While harbouring a lot of well-known tropes and conventions, he is able to subvert these in order to create something new, bold and inherently mystifying: a crime-thriller that’s more about the unsaid than the said.
Gosling’s performance is first-rate. His impassive portrayal of the equivocal “Driver” carries the film, channeling its focus on subtleties and nonverbal communication. Coupled with Mulligan, the two institute an entirely believable emotional core that allures the audience from the offset. Their chemistry sizzles, and remains bubbling under the onset of problems separating them. Elsewhere, Bryan Cranston makes the most of his limited role as “Driver’s” confidant and employer Shannon, while Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman make for sinister counterparts to “Driver’s” reserved nature, revelling in their opportunities to play against type. Christina Hendricks, meanwhile, brings a welcomed spiritedness to the film’s central, most shocking and adrenaline-fueled action scene. Her inclusion may be brief, but she ensures it doesn’t go unnoticed.
With Drive, Refn has masterminded a resplendent, mystifying and truly exceptional modern neo-noir thriller, bolstered by a smattering of award-worthy performances and a distinct and creative use of 80s-inspired music that acts as a brilliant substitute to overly-used speech and plot devices. This is the film of a true auteur, and one that will deservedly be rewarded for its boldness.