Dir:- Nicholas Windig Refn
Starr:- Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brookes, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks
With so much excellent dramatic content surfacing on television at the moment cinema is looking an increasingly moribund artistic medium. It is left to geekish stylists like the Danish-American filmmaker Refn to fill the void vacated by the vast majority of ‘independent’ auteurs over the last fifteen years. Rewind to the mid-90’s and it looked as if cinema was in impossibly rude health, with Steve Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino bringing the ‘independent’ sensibilities of Jarmusch, Lynch and Spike Lee into the heart of the mainstream. Much as the late 60’s and early 70’s ‘independent’ American cinema eventually spawned a generation of talent that would make the ‘blockbuster’ a preferred studio vehicle, so the late 70’s and 80’s ‘new-wave’ reaction inspired the calculated cinematic cool of Tarantino and the endless self-referentiality of Soderbergh. Just as ‘indie’ film seemed to be an omnipresent feature of any money-hoovering studio release roster, cinema entered the economic spiral from which it is still struggling to emerge. Around the turn of the century it became increasingly difficult for young filmmakers to find avenues for cinematic expression outside of the hothoused studio conventionalism of Hollywood. More money was being generated, but from fewer pictures, with studios seeming increasingly reluctant to finance anything that didn’t have the requisite ‘pull’ of a big star, or a SFX gimmick, and very few features being made at all outside of the Hollywood/Bollywood film factories. In this environment a director of Refn’s visual prowess may look as visionary as a Tarkovsky, or as stylish and coolly cerebral as a Kubrick.
Whilst nowhere near as powerful as intricate cinematic masterworks like The Mirror or Barry Lyndon, Drive’s synthetic, plastic, retro charms are without a doubt a challenge to the rest of North American and European cinema. Populating his fragmented Los Angeles urban sprawl with notable small-screen performers, such as Cranston (star of the superb Breaking Bad) and Hendricks (one of the many excellent qualities to be found in AMC’s Mad Men), whilst disinterring the likes of Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman from their usual smartmouthed, wise-cracking support turns, Refn has critically insulated his extremely capable star coupling of Gosling and Mulligan, making it almost impossible for their performances to fail. Gosling, in particular, as the laconic unnamed Driver, delivers a performance that channels the very best elements of Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen, reminding us of just how promising a talent he was when he first broke onto the scene in The Believer. Despite intermittent performances of subtlety and craft in the intervening decade (Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl) there has also been a lot of overblown nonsense clogging up his CV (Fracture, Murder by Numbers, The Notebook). Hopefully this movie (which looks set to mark the start of a rewarding period of collaboration with Refn) is the better indicator of which way Gosling’s career is headed, rather than the askew ‘dramedy’ of Crazy, Stupid Love. Likewise, Mulligan, who was simply exceptional in An Education, further reinforced the impression, that alongside Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, In Treatment), she will be at the vanguard of the Hollywood A-List for decades to come.
The movie seems to be almost timeless, with only a few technological references confirming that events are occurring in present-day LA. Refn enhances this sense of period drift by incorporating a primarily retro-sounding, synth-heavy soundtrack and wrapping the film up in the garish neon titling of mid-80’s works like Miami Vice and Footloose. The magpie aesthetic of modern Hollywood filmmakers is very much in evidence, with Michael Mann, Monte Hellman, Joseph Sargent, Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah all being touchstones for the tone, look and feel of Drive. However, aside from the Mann-like clinical framing and pacing and a Hellmanesque obsessive visual detailing of cars in motion, the movies that it seems to owe the largest debts to are Richard C. Sarafian’s 1971 cult-classic Vanishing Point and the French neo-noir Le Samourai by Jean-Pierre Melville. Whereas Refn’s 2008 feature Bronson, starring Tom Hardy, seemed to revel in the paradox of the central character’s disconcertingly organised (and seemingly ponintless) eruptions of chaos and violence, Drive is a much more restrained, and hybrid, beast.
Gosling’s Driver is a stuntman and a professional getaway driver, who carries out both jobs with a control, meticulousness and precision that belies the risk and danger that they involve. There are reservoirs of rage and violence held deep in check within Gosling, that seep out as if being pressed from an ancient wound that will never heal. A man that requires such perfection and attention to detail in his everyday work has clearly been deprived of necessary structure at some crucial stage in his development. Do not expect Refn to signpost any easy pop-psychology for you though, as the Driver remains as impenetrable as Delon’s hitman, or Eastwood’s more mystic Western roles. During his first encounters with Irene and her son, who live next door to him, Gosling’s wilful, yet benign, silences seem to push certain scenes to the very limit of awkward tension, whilst increasing the enigmatic allure of the central character. Oddly the Driver and Irene never seem to fully consummate their relationship, with Gosling, despite his violent threat, appearing almost asexual and childlike, particularly in his interactions with Irene’s young son.
Bryan Cranston plays Shannon who acts as both father-figure/mentor and exploiter-in-chief toward his sullen young charge. Perhaps the most strongly realised relationship in the movie, alongside Brooks’ and Perlman’s ‘Odd Couple’ business partnership, Cranston’s nervous energy and eagerness to please complements Gosling’s inward-reaching performance. Brooks and Perlman deserve a mention for inhabiting roles that we seldom see them drift into. Perlman’s doltish Mafioso is all lumbering heft and physical animal threat, whilst Brooks, so good at comically raging against the cosmos, here inhabits the coldly calculating numbers man Bernie Rose so convincingly that it is hard to believe nobody has thought of him for such a role before.
The film, with its pared down and lean narrative structure, barely wastes a scene and yet never seems to be rushed. Refn should be commended for demonstrating, against the current Hollywood trend, that a film need not be stretching to two hours, or more, to rival television in dramatic complexity or narrative power. In fact with its frequently ingenious chase sequences and disarmingly violent action sequences, the movie seems to fulfil Refn’s requirement of blending the sexual and the violent almost seamlessly, so that the two layers of tension are drawn tightly together around the small, fragile lives that are at the heart of the drama. Films like Drive reawaken the pleasure of the cinematic experience within you. Forget the bovine 3D CGI gimmickry of Avatar, it is for movies like Drive that the cinema is ideally suited. A heist film that turns LA into a claustrophobic purgatory out of which seemingly no-one can escape, Drive is one of the most satisfying films of the year. Refn frequently amps up the hideous, unswerving tension by utilising expressive sound (the creaking leather of the Driver’s gloves, the distinct modulations in engine noise, the deafening sounds of close range gunfire) in a fetishistic fashion that locks the audience into the clearly defined parameters of this seductive, yet uncompromising, narrative world, till it has a velvet-gloved vice-like grip upon your jugular.