Talk about late to the game – it took me forever to finally see Drive. I like Nicolas Wending Refn a lot. The Pusher trilogy is great, Bronson gave us Tom Hardy, and even though Valhalla Rising is incredibly flawed, its Aguirre meets Deliverance meets Conan hodge-podge was daring enough to be well worth the watch. And so it should come as no surprise that Refn’s American-studio debut, Drive, is as littered with reference, genre tangents, and brooding violence as its predecessors.
Drive sort of plays like Twin Peaks meets The Stunt Man meets Days of Thunder meets Vanishing Point, where it takes the naive romance and off-kilter pacing of the first, another sort of off-kilter pacing, character and set inspiration and a revenge structure from the second, the 80s and cars from the third (I know, Days of Thunder was made in 1990. Still, it’s an 80s movie), and existentialist car racing from the fourth.
Ryan Gosling is the taciturn getaway driver who falls for Irene (Carey Mulligan), the wife of an about-to-be-released ex-con, Standard (Oscar Isaac). When not avoiding the cops, the Driver is at the wheel of Hollywood stunt crashes with his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston). He’s also being pitched by Shannon as a potential stockcar driver to insane millionaire Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), who is in league with dangerous thug Nino (Ron Perlman).
The plotting of Drive leaves little to the imagination. It’s pretty straight-forward fare: guy meets girl, guy has heart of gold, guy gets into (pretty ludicrous) trouble, all hell breaks loose. What makes Drive successful is its atmosphere, driven largely by a pulsing synth score that isn’t afraid to dominate scenes, surprise violence, quiet scenes that let the action unfold free of dialogue, and an iconic character in the mold of some of the great quiet protagonists (think of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica).
The opening of Drive is awesome. In a heist scene that is sort of like Rififi in cars, we watch the Driver’s skills as he evades the law, all the while keeping his cool (and silence) in an extreme pressure situation. It’s a hell of a way to start the film and a great introduction to this world and character.
The next 30 minutes or so, are pretty strange. Refn lets the interactions between the Driver and Irene really stretch out, sometimes to comedic effect. It’s unclear whether this comedy is the desired result. A lot of early shot-reverse-shot sequences between the two last painfully long. I’m talking student-film long, where all you want to do is scream at the editor to cut. This is that Twin Peaks feel – where a lingering look is meant to hold all the promise of youth. While it worked elegantly for Lynch, his is a different brand – one where naivety and the real world collide. Refn is working in a separate mold, and more than a few frames, or even seconds, trimmed here and there would really improve the first act.
Perhaps Refn’s intention was to really set the first act apart from its successors in terms of pacing, and he does that noticeably. While the quiet, overlong “romance” dominates the beginning, the middle and end of the film become progressively darker, more violent, and generally faster. This “ramping up” effect has its success – just as the Driver leaves one world behind and enters another, we too leave behind the awkward rhythm of those initial moments and are forced into something that moves at a breakneck speed. A later moment in an elevator in the film – juxtaposing a fantastical, whimsically lit, slow-motion sequence with a regular motion, dully photographed, violent moment – continues the theme of contrasting elements.
Still, the awkwardness of those initial moments, while framing this squarely in its nostalgic, 80s, hot-for-teacher phase, actually feels like poor editing and staging. Nothing more.
Luckily, the following acts are pure entertainment. There’s plenty of bloodlust fulfillment, including one brutally violent scene in a hotel room, another in the aforementioned elevator, and a series involving Albert Brooks and his collection of razor blades. While Drive doesn’t break much new cinematic ground, it does give credence to an action over verbal exposition strategy. Refn tries so hard (mostly succeeding) to make the Driver iconic that the narrative at time suffers, with basic logic thrown out the window.
SLIGHT SPOILERS BELOW:
The friend I watched the film with pointed out a moment towards the end when the Driver confronts Nino. The Driver insists on wearing his stunt-double mask throughout their encounter, but its mostly for the visual effect (not on Nino, on the audience), as it actually does little besides likely impair his own vision. The same is nearly true of the end. Though Refn clearly wants to hit a nihilist, sacrificial note, the logic isn’t quite intact. The Driver has proven smart. Everyone in the audience knows that Brooks’ Bernie is going to attack him. Though the Driver’s been told that he will never be able to see Irene again, there’s little reason to believe that as fact, particularly given his (and her) willingness to let go of any money and disappear. Yet there’s still a final, bloody fight, that, depending on how you want to read the end, may cost the Driver his life. It’s a moment that is intentionally telegraphed, but not avoided as easily as it should be…for obvious reasons (the inevitable violent denouement).