There’s something about an action film involving a dude who drives a fast car and goes up against a bunch of ugly bad guys that appears cliché and banal. The tough-dude-plus-car-plus-guns-plus-explosions formula has produced some of America’s worst cinema, especially as of late. So it’s understandable if one’s initial response to a movie like Drive, where the premise seems to boast everything totally insufferable about macho action-adventure flicks, is dismissive. Not so fast.
The ninth film from director Nicholas Winding-Refn, Drive is a neo-noir masterpiece, a twenty-first century Los Angeles fever dream that helped herald the neon-tinged analog-nostalgia of the 2010s, Moog keyboard and all. Think Sixteen Candles or Pretty in Pink, but with a few pages torn from Scarface and a lot of blood. The film boasts a soundtrack of tasteful synth-laden alt-pop that’s essential listening (and I’m talking about the original soundtrack, not the atrocious Zane Lowe-curated rescore). The cast is a remarkable roster of impressive fledglings and seasoned heavyweights—Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Pearlman, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks; and then Ryan Gosling, or James Dean with a baseball bat and a muscle car. You know it’s present-day Los Angeles, but it feels almost like the LA of 1985, when Tears for Fears was on the radio and leather jackets ruled Sunset Boulevard. The images create an atmosphere that is at times rich and warm but still visceral and brutal. It’s like a world unto itself: The distinctive visuals pair so perfectly with the score and soundtrack you’d think Refn had spent years studying simultaneously under John Hughes and David Fincher.
Even though it has stunning ambience and cool factor, the film is actually a very effective and stylish mob movie. The criminal underworld crops up throughout the film, and villainous characters like Bernie and Nino harken back to the days of classic Mafia films and give Drive a sense of timelessness by tapping into traditional Hollywood motifs. The Mob ties add a little extra sleaze and seediness to an already degenerate ring of crime, and give the film some of its most violent and thrilling moments.
And it is thrilling. The opening scene—a nail biter of a police chase through the streets of LA—is perhaps one of the tensest and most riveting of the last ten years, maybe longer. Gosling’s character doesn’t even break a sweat, and his unyielding confidence and startling moments of aggression keep the film in a constant suspension between tranquility and grit. Gosling’s nameless character rarely breathes a word of dialogue, and something about his silence makes the film all the more foreboding.
But underneath the leather gloves are soft palms. The true brilliance of Drive lies not in its modern-day cult status or flawless sense of style. It lies in its tender, albeit ironclad, heart. Despite the throat slitting and head bashing, there’s something about Drive that feels strangely hopeful and upbeat, a dull warmth, demonstrated particularly by Gosling and Mulligan’s performances with each other, that seems to encapsulate the film and guide it through its bleakest moments.
In short, Drive is an excellent piece of robust, sleek adrenaline that still somehow manages to be haunting, beautiful, and eternal.
By: Nick Biland