Ryan Gosling is an actor on the ascent. His characters to this point have run the gambit of all styles, from lovable loser (Lars and the Real Girl), to heartthrob (The Notebook) to drug-addled teacher (Half Nelson). There is no character depth he will not explore and his best performances come with characters who have a dangerous flaw in their character. Nicolas Winding Refn is a Danish director whose most notable work was Tom Hardy vehicle Bronson and Scandinavian action film Valhalla Rising. The two men come together in the neo-noir heist action thriller, Drive.
The action focuses on an unnamed Hollywood stunt driver (Gosling) who sidelines by being a getaway driver for all sorts of criminals. A quiet loner, the driver meets and befriends his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son. Irene explains to him one day that her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is getting out of prison. After an altercation with some thugs, Standard explains to the driver that he is being forced to do another heist to pay-off local gangsters that he owes money to and convinces the driver to help him. Drive in fact closely resembles the early work of Luc Besson, being as it so, so unashamed of the ambitious mess that it’s showing to the audience.
Drive is nothing like you’d expect it to be. It’s not Hollywood at all, as Refn‘s Scandinavian influence is obvious from the opening scene. Shots are left lingering when they’d normally be cut and dialogue, when there is any, is slow and quiet. It makes for an unusal viewing experience and one that will no doubt divide audiences. There’s a glossy sheen to everything from the cars to the characters, but what it lacks in depth, it more than makes up in opulent stylishness.
From the opening scene Drive is populated with a pulsing, grimy 1980s styled soundtrack that recalls Blade Runner. Add to that the neon pink credits and the horrendous white jacket with golden scorpion that the driver wears and there is no doubt that Refn was aiming for a retro, grindhouse and art-house hybrid. He hops genres quickly and without apology from western, to horror, to heist, to thriller and while this would normally be annoying and messy, it’s done in such an unashamed way that it works.
At the heart of the film is Gosling‘s stoic, almost mute driver. He pulls no punches and never jokes or fools around. Like a young Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns, Gosling gives a performance of such quiet but raw rage and passion, there is not one second on film that he is anything but completely believable. In fact he single-handedly pulls the film through from exploitation to art-house film. He has been cruelly denied an Oscar in the past, but on the basis of this turn of character he is an actor who will not be denied for long.
Hyper-violent, retro, all style and no substance, Drive on the face of it is a mess. However, as a one-shot idea Refn has the class to pull all the disparate elements together and with Gosling as his lead manage to make a truly original piece of work from the carcasses of classic films of the last 20 years. It’ll be loved and hated in equal measure and like Luc Besson‘s early films, it will only work providing the director does not go back to the well too many times. Here’s hoping that Refn branches out a bit to more mainstream fare, or he might be consigned to producing exploitation films like his French predecessor.