Released last year, Drive is the stylish, and often very brutal, neo-noir story of an LA stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. Although it is the very definition of critically acclaimed (it currently has a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), it is a film that has really divided my friends and peers.
It stars Ryan Gosling as ‘The Driver’ (his lack of a moniker arguably a tribute to Clint Eastwood’s prototype antihero) who crashes cars for a living by day, and operates like an uber-strict Taxi service for criminals at night. In the opening scene of the film we see The Driver talking to a client:
“There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own. Do you understand?”
I can’t imagine The Driver telling you “I’m just coming down your road. Honestly. Two minutes tops”. Pretty sure he also wouldn’t tell you what’s wrong the country these days or answer your questions about how busy he’s been tonight.
About that opening scene though. Wow. I don’t think I have been as mesmerised by the opening 10 minutes of a film since the first time I saw Heat – which is ironic as the director Nicolas Winding Refn manages to photograph (rather than merely film – it’s all about the light) LA in a very Michael Mann-esque way. Added to the gorgeous visuals is a pumping, doom-laden synthesiser soundtrack and some small snippets of stylised dialogue. When the titles come up, I could not help think of the seminal console game GTA Vice City – and I honestly mean that as a massive compliment. In fact, I think the plot of Drive would have been perfect for Vice City (despite being the wrong city).
The performances are almost uniformly excellent. It’s great to see more of Bryan Cranston (as I have only just started Breaking Bad – very poor, I know) and Carey Mulligan can do no wrong in my eyes (see Shame). Ryan Gosling is interesting as The Driver, and at times seems almost ‘too cool’. For a start, he chews on a toothpick. Now, Eddie Izzard talks about the ‘circle of cool’ in Definite Article – and his theory is that ‘coolness’ is a circle, and that is you go too far round the circle you get cooler, and cooler, and then you go too far and you’re “back to looking like a dickhead”. He actually uses toothpicks as an example – one toothpick, looking pretty cool. But add a second toothpick.
There are moments in Drive where Gosling straddles that circle, and one of those moments actually involves a toothpick. He’s stood in the kitchen of his neighbour’s (Mulligan) flat chewing a toothpick. Pretty cool. Then he offers a toothpick to her son. Not cool Driver. Toothpicks aren’t gum. Or Tic-Tacs. Or segments of Satsuma.
I can’t find anyone who doesn’t like the first half of the film – it’s the second half that loses a lot of people. Basically, a heist goes wrong and all of a sudden the Driver is fighting to protect himself and the people that he may love, but certainly feels honour-bound to protect. And at this point the violence really takes over. It’s not long and sustained, but it is brutal and shocking – like a punch to the stomach. I personally felt the violence was justified by the situation that the Driver found himself in – and although it may appear out of character, the character that we ‘know’ is based on the actions of a man that we only have a few days history of. We don’t know his backstory, and where he has come from – which is why I personally don’t think you can say it is unbelievable.
Nor do I think the violence was gratuitous. It is raw, and uncomfortable – but the people on the receiving end deserve it, and that is the sole justification for allowing the audience to be a voyeur of Driver’s actions. I have seen less obviously visceral violence portrayed on screen in some of the ‘torture porn’ films like Hostel, Saw, and 8mm – but they make me far more uncomfortable as I think the directors in those cases are not really ‘saying’ anything, but are offering up the violence as entertainment. I also think it’s less gratuitous than Winding Refn’s previous film ‘Bronson‘.
This is by no means a perfect film. For a film called Drive, there was only one real car chase of any substance, and a few scenes didn’t quite have the pay-off I wanted (specifically a scene on the beach at the start of the 3rd act for example).
That said, I woke up this morning and wanted to watch it again. I’ve seen people refer to it as a homage to 80s Road Movies, but to me its tone felt closer to nihilistic 70s thrillers like Get Carter, The Getaway, and The French Connection. Either way it’s one hour and forty minutes and stylish entertainment – and if you can get past the violence it is just great cinema.