Drive (2011)

Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

Drive will almost certainly split audiences into two camps. There will be those who will describe the film as a triumph of style over substance and those who will argue that its substance is to be found in its style. A.O. Scott described the film as ‘a prisoner of its own emptiness, substituting moods for emotions and borrowed style for real audacity’. Unlike Scott, I find my self in the latter camp; Director Nicholas Winding Refn knowingly uses gloss and surface to illustrate the character of L.A. and the spiritual absence at the core of its inhabitants.

Ryan Gosling plays ‘Driver’ whose real name is never revealed. His apparent rootlessness and lack of motivation adds to his mystique. By day he is a Hollywood stuntman. By night, he is a getaway driver for bank heists. Presumably Driver makes a fair packet from these heists but seems content to assist Shannon (Bryan Cranston) at his garage. The implication is that Driver needs danger to feel alive and as a substitute for a lack of emotional intimacy. This changes when he befriends his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio. Imbued with a tangible purpose, he rises to defend them after an attempt to alleviate Irene’s husband (Oscar Issac) from prison debts goes horribly wrong.

Drive bears comparison to Luc Besson’s Leon. Both are about alienated single-minded professionals who lack any meaningful relationships and who find solace (briefly) before tragedy ensues. The directorial approaches are also similar, the key difference being that Winding Refn’s overall tone is far more pessimistic and cynical whereas Besson’s films are imbued with a child-like enthusiasm. Both place an emphasis on marrying sound and music to image. After the opening sequence, the screen briefly fades to black before Nightcall (by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx) ear-piercingly rips through the speakers accompanied by slick aerial shots of Los Angeles at night. It’s hard not to be seduced by the bombast. There is something inexplicably satisfying when visuals and sound are so effectively synchronised that the images haunt you long after you’ve left the cinema. But there are also disquieting scenes laden with subtle nuances that confirm the director’s range.

There are frequent references to surfaces and reflections; Driver looking through his rear-view mirror, the use of bland stunt masks, neon lights flickering upon faces. Gosling’s acting is understated to the point of self-effacement. With barely any lines he communicates through exchanged glances, unblinking concentration or even the faint curl of a smile. It works very well, though it will no doubt elicit parodies.

I struggled to reconcile Carey Mulligan with her role, but on second viewing it was apparent that she is a good fit. She embodies a believable vulnerability, exuding a warmth of character that attracts Driver’s affections.

The supporting roles are brilliantly fulfilled. Though the plot is plainly elemental, none of the characters are played two-dimensionally. Oscar Issac conveys a palpable susceptibility, which intensifies right up to the films botched robbery. Christina Hendricks extinguishes any hint of her role as Mad Men’s Joan Holloway. Bryan Cranston who has proved such a revelation in Breaking Bad manages to steal some of the film’s laughs alongside Ron Perlman as west coast mobster Nino. Most surprising is Albert Brooks who plays Bernie Rose. Brooks oozes with hostility. He is a terrifying presence, committing horrendous acts without care or hesitation. Rose is a character whose emotions have long since deadened. After committing a murder he sits with a drink at home and looks positively lost. Yes, he did it for practical reasons, yet there is just a hint that he may well realise the absurdity of his existence and the needlessness of the violence which surrounds him.

Film still from 'Drive' (taken from

The violence of the film is highly aestheticised, punctuated aggressively with sound and music. Driver veers between two poles of emotional state, perhaps because he is incapable of any thing in-between. It is not the casual and muted violence of your average action film. Instead, it is searing, disturbing and at times, plainly ridiculous. The tragedy of the film is that in protecting Irene and Benicio, Driver’s capacity for violence will have to reveal itself, thus threatening to destroy the very thing he is attempting to protect.

It struck me throughout the film that though heinous crimes are committed, there is virtually no police presence (save for the opening sequence) or any suggestion that any of the characters are concerned about covering up their actions. This lends itself to the film very well, serving to extenuate the loneliness of the protagonist whilst conveying the expanse of unregulated urban jungle in which he is lost. It’s hard to even image if Driver could ever leave L.A., in the sense that the city stands in for a sort of continuous, inescapable urban environment without any clear boundaries. It lends additional weight to Bernie Rose’s threat: ‘any dreams you have, or plans for your future, I think you’re gonna have to put that on hold. For the rest of your life you’re gonna be looking over your shoulder.’

The visuals reminded me of Michael Mann’s Collateral, its protagonist of numerous lone individuals from Westerns. Its unsurprising that the work of Winding Refn is already being worshipped by cinephiles. He has a brilliant capacity to weave influences, styles and cinematic references together to create something new. His directorial virtuosity inspires admiration amongst his audiences. It is to this type for whom the film will appeal. Others will deem Drive to be shallow and gratuitous. A similar charge was levelled at Besson, whose films inspired the term Cinéma du look. The label stood for the prioritising of the visual over plotting and characterisation. I always felt that the charge was unfair. Besson’s films, whilst being visually slick, are surprisingly affecting (I’m thinking specifically of Leon, Nikita and The Big Blue) as is Drive, which ends on an ambiguous and sombre note. If such films really do articulate the alienation of youth, they should at least inform us of the sophisticated lengths with which emotion is deferred and reconstituted as something palpable, if imperfect.