After reading various reviews, many have been quick to praise Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, especially professional ‘film critics’. However among the bloggers and part-timer writers, many have been less awestruck. But after following the project for a while and watching the trailers, Drive had gained my attention. Based on James Sallis’ 2005 novel, Nicolas Winding Refn takes the relatively simple premise and injects it with adrenaline and style. My personal experience with Refn’s career stems from Bronson and the Pusher Trilogy. His stylist approach to film is reminiscent of work by Stanley Kubrick, and there’s a focus on the primal nature of man; aggression and violence. However, how would this transcend in, arguably, his most mainstream work?
The plot follows a Hollywood stunt performer who is simply known as ‘Driver’ (Ryan Gosling). He starts to form a relationship with his female neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son Benicio. However, after meeting Irene’s newly paroled husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), he soon becomes entangled in dangerous territory. He takes a job as the getaway driver for a simple ‘Pawn Shop’ robbery job. But when everything goes wrong, a brutal thrill-ride begins as he tries to protect Irene and tie up loose ends. Drive’s story is relatively straightforward with no plot twists and nothing really ground-breaking or unique. What’s surprising about Drive is its dramatic change from a dragging ‘romantic’ endeavour into a barrage of violence and brutality. Its 18 rating becomes justified through the course of the film as bones break and heads get caved-in, whilst the development of tension really adds a refreshing note to the ‘tired’ narrative. However Drive’s story suffers from slightly flawed pacing and character development. After a dramatic heist scene that masterfully opens the film, its first act turns into a sluggish exchange of smiles and small talk between Gosling and Carey’s characters. Drawn-out shots of staring and ‘silence’ become a tedious and awkward affair. Alongside the first act’s slow speed, is a somewhat instantaneous relationship between Gosling and Carey that never is explained or fully developed. The abruptness of the ‘romantic’ plot element means that we don’t build any attachment to the characters, and it feels rather empty and shallow. These problems weaken the first act but are cancelled out by pulsating, and thrilling second and third acts.
In terms of the acting, Drive is good but far from perfect. Ryan Gosling has to be the most busiest actor this year with the likes of The Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid Love. Here his performance is somewhat disjointed. While his character’s persona is split between calm and quiet, and then intense and sinister, Gosling fails to pull off both. When he’s interacting with Mulligan, it’s too lifeless and uninspired. In contrast he plays his latter personality perfectly, managing to be genuinely threatening and savage. He’s good but lacks balance and refinement. Bryan Cranston puts in a great performance as Shannon, whilst Albert Brooks is perfect as crime boss Bernie Rose. However, the female side of the cast is underwhelming. Carey Mulligan is average at best, but she doesn’t really have enough dialogue to display her acting skills. Meanwhile, Christina Hendricks is listed as a main character but never really fulfils her ‘title’.
The cinematography is where Nicolas Winding Refn really nails it. The ‘cockpit’ camera angles are evocative of those in 1968’s Bullitt, and really immerse the audience in the action. The simple camera framing of Gosling’s reflection in the rear-view mirror, his leather-clad hands clutching the wheel and the oscillating speed-o-meter really add a dynamic and depth to the simple act of driving. Outside the car, low and tilted angles, as well as changes in camera focus, make characters seem more imposing and menacing. Lighting is also used smartly. From the neon-lit landscapes of Los Angeles, to the revolving beams from a lighthouse, there’s a illustrative richness and added ambience to the blank interiors and exteriors.
The sound design is also brilliant, especially during the driving sequence. Engines rev, exhausts pop, its a very loud and exhilarating experience. In contrast, the visual brutality is assisted through uncomfortable snaps and splats. However what’s more interesting is Refn’s use of silence. Silence becomes an indicator when Gosling goes into overdrive, but adds a sense of unpredictability, tension and allows the film’s visual character to fully convey. On the other hand, the soundtrack is a mixed affair. Cliff Martinez’s score is fabulously atmospheric, with a strong mix of electronic pulses and eloquent, panoramic tones. Reminiscent of work by Brian Eno, it certainly integrates well with Refn’s use of silence and slow-motion sequences. In terms of the other contributors, its a little varied. College’s ‘A Real Hero’ lyrics is foreshadowing at its most obvious, whilst the annoying electronic voice of ‘Nightcall’ by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx fails to match the song’s soothing, synthesised notes. The real stand out is The Chromatics‘ ‘Tick of the Clock‘ (in the trailers) which, though repetitive and minimal, manages to merge well with the visual styling and creates added tension to the opening heist scene.
Overall, Drive is a ‘bloody’ good watch but is spoilt by a slow first act and a lack of character development. While the story is relatively simple and the performances aren’t award-winning, Refn focuses his attention on the film’s cinematography and audio construction, resulting in a very stylish, thrilling and intense film that leaves a lasting impression.