A; Action, Drama, Art-house
Dir: Nicholas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carrey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac
Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
It would be far too obtuse of me to call Drive an art-house version of the Jason Statham starrer The Transporter, as many have been describing it. This quiet little film is an unabashed cinematic pastiche of various influences, borrowing gently from filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese and John Schlesinger.
In terms of tonality, this film sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum occupied by directors such as Quentin Tarantino and David Cronenberg, those masters at balancing simmering tedium with brutal, blood-soaked violence. It has all the elements: long, unbroken takes; steady tracking shots; minimal background music and sound design, and sudden punctuations of carefully orchestrated action.
However, as I watched Drive, I found myself wondering more than once about what Tarantino or Cronenberg would've done with this film. Refn, who won this year's Best Director prize at Cannes for this film, has a charismatic style (barring somewhat bizarre stylistic choices such as Cliff Martinez's '80s synth-pop score), but falters slightly in his storytelling, particularly when there's no bloodletting involved.
Drive starts off beautifully with a fantastic opening sequence showing the unnamed protagonist (Gosling, credited simply as 'The Driver') explaining his modus operandi as a getaway car driver to two hoodlums about to rob a warehouse. Five minutes, he says, and he's all theirs. Anything outside that and they're on their own. Gosling holds your attention from this sequence onward; he's quiet but alert, eyes darting around even as an ever-present toothpick dangles from his mouth.
Clint Eastwood made a career out of playing 'The Man With No Name', and Gosling's fantastic, enigmatic performance is an interesting update to the character: a sexy hybrid of Steve McQueen and Robert De Niro, with a dour demeanour reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone. He is let down, however, by screenwriter Hossein Amini who, in adapting James Saliss' novel of the same name, sacrifices depth for superficial style.
The Driver, who's a Hollywood stuntman as well as a car mechanic by day, could've been a Travis Bickle (De Niro's character from Taxi Driver), but the absolute lack of background coupled with his sometimes-frustrating lack of dialogue prevents it from being truly iconic. For example, his relationship with his neighbour Irene (Mulligan, who is sincere but seems miscast in this role) makes for not-very-compelling viewing. Things pick up a little once Irene's incarcerated husband Standard (Isaac) enters the scene, but by then a third of the movie is gone. There also seems to be a conscious attempt to stylise certain sequences, such as a passionate kiss in an elevator, in ways that aren't entirely logical.
Drive is at its exhilarating best in its final act, a Takeshi Kitano-esque downward spiral of violence after a heist with Standard (the Driver's way of assuaging the guilt he feels for loving his wife? We must assume so) goes wrong. The casting is perfect, with Cranston turning in an exceptional performance as his crippled boss Shannon. Meanwhile, veterans Brooks and Perlman play violent mobsters/pizza place owners Bernie and Nino so well that one can almost imagine a Goodfellas-like spin-off on just these two characters.
In the end, Drive plays out like a four-movement symphony, with the initial sonata overstaying its welcome. The final movement is applause-worthy, and that, unfortunately enough, is the only part that really stays with you.