There is a certain character that just seems to crop up again and again on celluloid: the principled crook. The cinematic underworld is rife with characters like this, from Jean-Pierre Melville’s laconic hitmen to Micahel Mann’s stable of killers and thieves. They are career criminals who live by an unspoken code that places professionalism above all else – something that they seem to rarely, if ever, get in return from their lawless compatriots. With a number of crime films already under his belt, director Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher Trilogy, Bronson) has proven that he knows this dark world well. His new film Drive manages to be both an immaculate homage to the seminal crime films of Melville and Mann, and a worthy addition to a genre already full of classics.
The film’s nameless and nearly silent protagonist (Ryan Gosling) — referred to only as the driver — has an affinity for automobiles. He has a talent for fixing cars and a talent for driving them. He puts these skills to good use, working by day as a stunt driver in Hollywood movie productions and at the garage of Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a aging hustler with a limp. It’s a legitimate front for a double life. After hours he works as a wheelman for hire, spiriting thieves away from the scene of their crimes. All the driver provides is the getaway vehicle and his considerable driving skills, beyond that he refuses to get involved in the illicit activities of his employers. Confident that this detachment protects him, the driver tries to live an unremarkable existence out of his spartan apartment.
Things change when he meets his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother raising her son, Benicio, alone. While her boyfriend — and son’s father — Standard finishes a prison sentence, the driver forms a quick bond with the pair, becoming very protective of Irene and the young boy. When Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns home from prison, the driver discovers that the ex-con owes a local crime boss for the protection he was provided in prison. Determined to protect Irene and Benicio, the driver offers to help Standard repay his debt, but events do not go to plan.
Watching Drive, it is hard to not be reminded of movies like Le Samourai and Thief. In classic neo-noir tradition, the protagonists of these films pride themselves on having no attachments; after all, any lasting relationship would be a liability in their line of work. Invariably a woman lures them out of their self-made shell and that relationship is used against them. It’s a fairly clichéd setup, but Refn breathes new life into the well-used heist-gone-wrong story with a compelling central character, strong style and moody ambience.
Drive is a very quiet film in terms of dialogue. In the spirit of “the man with no name”, its protagonist rarely speaks, and when he does his questions and statements are almost entirely utilitarian. There is an intensity to Gosling’s character that can be likened to a wild animal. Men in this world are naturally violent creatures, behind every one lies a “tiger in the jungle”. The driver, for all of his apparent virtue, is merely a beast trying to survive in a dangerous world. If the scorpion emblazoned on his jacket does not remind viewers of this fact, his many shocking outbursts of violence certainly will.
Despite his character’s less than chatty demeanour, Gosling holds the audience hostage whenever he’s on screen. He has a silent charisma that makes him perfect for the role of the driver, carrying entire scenes without so much as a word. The equally talented Carey Mulligan feels underused, as does the wonderful Christina Hendricks. Drive, like most noirs, features a male dominated world where women are mostly relegated to plot points or femme fatales. It’s unfortunate, as I’d like to have seen more of both characters.
Of all the great performances in the film, perhaps none stand out more than Albert Brooks. The actor, known mostly for his comedic roles, turns in a truly sinister performance as the gangster Bernie Rose. By the end of the film I was terrified to see what the character would do next.
Composer Cliff Martinez’s synth-heavy score infuses the film with the hot neon flavour of Michael Mann’s classic crime dramas. His score is complemented well by a mostly modern soundtrack that evokes this same feeling. The standout track “Nightcall” by French electrohouse artist Kavinsky helps to set the tone early on.
Drive is a classic crime film stripped down to the bone. The film is as much about pulling off the caper and outsmarting the crooks, as it is about character and tone. You’ve seen the tropes of this film before, but never so expertly and confidently packaged. Refn’s understanding and appreciation of the genre shine bright like high beams on a dark Los Angeles street.