Drive has been on the fingertips of everyone in Antipodean critical and festival circles for months. It wasn’t until this week, after being thoroughly sick of the hype, that I finally got to see it. Was it worth the wait? Definitely. Could I have done without Chris Murray introducing it in the same effusive tones as he did the execrable Kick-Ass last year? Indubitably.
Drive is a tonal delight, a package of constant surprises. Fortunately, its incredibly filmic nature means that the unwrapping can only happen before your eyes and not on my page. Drive is not perfect, but cumulative moments suggest that it very nearly is. It’s a film’s film, as only certain directors can make; it is most assuredly not an entry in the same canon as The Fast and the Furious.
The Driver (Ryan Gosling) works in film stunts and as a mechanic. Occasionally he’s the wheelman for criminals. Then he meets his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and grows attached to her. When her husband comes back from prison, he has some problems with a protection racket, and the Driver decides to help him pull off one last job.
That plot summary makes Drive sound very standard. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with that fundament; the plot gives the film its backbone, but tone and structure and feel are more important. Drive evokes the eighties at every turn. Director Nicholas Winding Refn explains that this is because LA never left the eighties, so he had no choice in that regard, but there was a conscious decision involved in taking title font from Risky Business, and from investing the score and soundtrack in the best of synth.
Drive is not a film that gets by on its dialogue. Almost entire scenes are presented with just Gosling and Mulligan shyly and then slyly smiling at each other, furthering their craft as full body actors. This is, in fact, body and soul immersion in the art of film making. Look at the lighting. Listen to the soundtrack. Gaze in awe at a man who is dedicated to making everything on his screen move in beautiful symphony. Drive is a film that you can swim in. It’s not hard to describe why it works, but the component parts come together so well that it’s enough to stand back and watch the machine do its thing.
And then the violence starts. When the blood begins to flow, Drive changes – and not for the subtle. The film becomes literally indelibly stained by the actions the Driver both witnesses and commits. Suddenly the Driver is not a quiet man deriving whatever small pleasures he can from a life newly discovered with neighbours he likes; he, and the film, become a very different machine indeed.
Ultra violence is of course nothing new, and Drive is more matter of fact about it than it is gratuitous. Suddenly the mood piece dissolves, the dream is over, and the Driver has a mission bigger than himself, bigger than any one woman or man that he knows; although, of course, it is entirely about the women and men that he knows.
The introduction of violence does not ruin the film but it is a massive gear change. It’s not that unexpected, as the Driver could not stay in his holding pattern for ever (although I honestly wouldn’t have minded had he and Irene led a Somewhere style existence), but it is slightly unwelcome. Suddenly actions have meanings and consequences. Suddenly everything is real, except, of course, it isn’t.
Understatement becomes overstatement and the extremity of the situations presented arouses both laughter and revulsion in audiences who believe they’re accustomed to head stomping only to find that a cool theory is a discomfiting practise.
So while the movie never stops being enjoyable, after a time it seems that it could have reasonably wrapped itself up a little earlier; the Driver spends a lot of time tying up all of his loose ends. The film is never less than compelling but it could have been slightly tighter. The longer it spends in the changed world of violence, the farther it gets from the idyll captured in the film’s earlier parts.
Still, Drive’s flaws are minimal, and its sheer style combats any misgivings. Compounded by excellent performances all around, including a surprisingly nuanced turn from Albert Brooks, Drive remains a treat even if you find yourself wondering why it isn’t over yet. By turns minimalistic and over the top, Drive asks many questions that don’t need the answers they don’t receive. Ultimately, who cares where the Driver came from? Who cares where he’s going? All he needs is to drive, and we were fools to ever have thought otherwise.