Director Nicholas Winding Refn cleverly opens Drive with a compelling high-octane chase through the streets of nighttime LA, during which Ryan Gosling, baseball game burbling from the radio, stop-start guns a last-gasp getaway into a series of clever, nervy near-misses before eventually slipping the attentions of the law amidst the safety of the post-game crowd. I say ‘cleverly’ but the walk-outs across in UK multiplexes shortly thereafter suggest that many a punter felt mislead: that’s the most ‘in-car’ action you get, other than one other chase involving Christina Hendricks and a car seen flipping through the air through the windscreen over her shoulder (genius shot). This isn’t a chase movie, or an action film: opening in such a way sets the tone. There’s a matter-of-fact compulsion to the prologue that’s a million miles from pulverizing drum-and-bass car pyrotechnics.
By day Gosling’s a mere stunt driver and auto mechanic: throwing himself into the metal-whomp of chassis-totalling peril and tinkering under the bonnet. He’s a central character that clearly struggles to communicate, socially inert, murmur-happy, who is arrested from the automaton danger of his existence by two things: his car and Carey Mulligan. The latter seems to take him by surprise: flipping his stunt car through 180˚ and onto its roof at high speed is nothing. Mulligan, however, awakens something that he can only normally access when gripping the wheel with landscape blurring by. She should represent the opposite of danger, something to ameliorate the precariousness of his existence. But soon enough she’s the reason he’s dodging bullets as well as serious workaday injury.
There have been plenty of inscrutable, unreachable characters down the years, and the play on that trope is normally to wear them down, coax the ‘real’ them out of a cast-iron shell, thaw the ice progressively (until there’s a shallow pool of acquiescence), or have them refuse to budge an iota right through to the end, which normally entails a lot of people taking a beating, as the ‘for real’ protagonist, with glum resolve, walks off beyond a heap of nemeses into a sunset that only means something to the observer.
Ryan Gosling’s driver is a kind of re-animation of the McQueen/Eastwood prototype, a man who believes in doing a job properly within specific parameters, offering nothing beyond efficient resolve other than easy-on-the-eye intransigence. During his violent escapades here (although there’s little in the way of satisfaction involved, more a blank dutiful impassiveness) he’s a little like a child caught up in a motorway pile-up – traumatised somewhere in there but surface numb. He’s not Takashi Miike’s blind samurai, chuckling affably between ruthless limb-lopping before reverting to humble tranquillity. He’s the troubled, monosyllabic offspring of the 80s writ large, stuck behind the wheel: sexless, starved of serotonin and substance from birth, he’s an adrenaline junky, the product of e-numbers, fast food and MTV. The gestalt here is unmistakable: and the Bickle-esque central character that’s negotiating this hazy half-world will clearly face a reckoning of some sort. The backdrop, though, isn’tVietnamnightmares, it’s much more nebulous, and there’s no euphoric bloodshed and catharsis, just the negation of a dream with no resolution.
The thing is (and the film rests almost entirely on this): the protagonist is impossible to dislike and cool. Gosling has the face and demeanour of a manchild, an all-American cereal box kid kept in a vault and unleashed into adulthood, no longer registering on any kind of readable scale. When he moves in on an auto-shunted Ron Perlman, beached and bloodied, he’s wearing a mask and looks like a crash test dummy (which is funny) but he’s inexorable death and vulnerable at the same moment. It’s hard to imagine who else could carry off such a powerful dichotomy. As Perlman (a cackling minor Mob scumbag) flails and splashes before a totally immutable gaze, the expressionless executioner hoves in, playing a non-specific role, metering out unacknowledged punishment, on behalf of a girl and her son, people he hardly knows, an act of murderous faith borne out of a feeling. When Gosling kisses Mulligan for the first time, in a lift that also contains someone arrived in their building to kill them, the kiss, the moment of grace before death is duelled, is prolonged by Refn, a cauterized slow-mo shot that suggests Gosling is preserving a memory and stifling inevitablility. Therin lies the intent of the film, and the scene offers a perfect microcosmic hint at what Refn’s after. Namely, the best of any moment, to sift out all the mundanities and retain only the hard-edged or gratifying elements and string them together.
Director Refn gets it all exactly right. I have yet to read the source novel, although Max Cairnduff’s excellent review -http://tinyurl.com/82y8ens - suggests that it’s well worth checking out. But, in terms of cinema, he has fashioned an extremely interesting concoction that asks swift, serious questions, in passing, about what a modern story can do in terms of contemporary commentary on film heritage without affecting story immersion: how there’s little room for the lone hero amidst the swarming bombardment of information and overkill, and what the 80s have become in our collective consciousness. Here is an alternate 80s: the music could hardly offer more overt cues. Refn suggests: this character and these metonymical elements are best served through the utilisation of an idea of a time. It’s a distancing mechanism that’s as good as a relocation to another, analogous planet.
The film is in many ways an adolescent fantasy, punchy nostalgia rebooted, gleam-waxed, supercharged yearning for an ineffable but unnamed something. Recognition? There’s a scene in the film in which Gosling prises open the lid he’s kept an inarticulate white-knuckled hand over throughout, offering a tribute to Mulligan that seems doom-laden: ‘I just want you to know, the time I’ve spent with you has been the best time of my life.’ As though he understands his fate doesn’t involve hanging around being happy, as hanging around, whoever it’s with, means death: he needs to move to live – because he’s an idea. There exists between Gosling and Mulligan a strange, unspoken accord, surprising but futile. His fate lies elsewhere: he’s a stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night: hardly the bedrock of a long-term relationship, nor the professional pursuits of a man likely to be home much.
You have to, I’d say, look at the film as a product of a director born at a certain point who has always trodden a difficult path between substance and visceral immediacy. The emotional affect here doesn’t quite work: it’s basically Eno’s ‘Ascent: An Ending’ as shorthand for the magic of amorous connect. Far less clumsy and sloppily overbearing would’ve been no soundtrack whatsoever during these scenes: but in writing this I realise that it’s part of the whole conflation of an Eighties-feel sensibility taken a little too far, probably deliberately. It’s a suffocating clinch when it might be a casual embrace, and such moments detract in a film where other such examples of soundtrack overkill work perfectly, such as during a montage featuring a day out in the car for Gosling, Mulligan and her son, in which he makes lighthearted concessions to his trade by delighting with some barely-dangerous manoeuvring.
These people are fairly ridiculous. They’re comic-book Mob, pulp miscreants, endangered, helpless damsels and sullen heroes. The whole set-up has been done countless times. But it all unquestionably works: the sum is a glinting, beguiling amalgamation of the parts, and it’s a very strange entity often masquerading as something very different. It’s a film about nostalgia and the impulse that demands the impossible combination of comfort and reassuring recycling with night and uncertainty, which never flinches and never doubts its method.
This isn’t a film about driving, it’s an extrapolation of a feeling prompted by the daydream gleam on a fender, a film about adolescent projections as to what a city might be like (the LA of Drive feels unfinished, a dream reconstruction, smooth-edged and uncluttered), full of elegiac slow-mo interrupts and sudden, unfeasible eruptions of violence, all based upon a singular fount: (80s) cinema, TV and music. As such, it’s clever and endearing: it relentlessly prevails on a surface level that, were it to plunge beneath, it would quickly collapse. It’s an artful, unreal, depthless riff on a collective impression of an era and a naivety, and it works supremely well. Critics that refer to formula ‘plot holes’ are looking for another film that Refn would never make. The kiss between the leads, the avid, unvarnished, staged brutalities, the cars flying onto the beach, the musical interventions: they’re all hallucinatory, boyish invocations of want. Refn’s skill is to transpose that into a vicarious cinematic experience without it becoming a ridiculous exercise in nostalgia porn. A considerable achievement.