Review: Drive

***originally written 9 October 2011***

I know nothing about cars. Really, despite God knows how many cumulative hours of Top Gear, nothing has stuck. Even my housemate Tom knows how to approach me on the subject of cars. This brief conversation happened just yesterday:

Tom: I got a new car.

Me: Oh yeah? What kind?

Tom: It’s blue.

Me: Oh. That’s a good car!

Yet I have a strong affection for car films. From David Cronenberg’s psycho-sexual nightmare Crash to the post 60s requiems-for-freedom Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop, there is something strangely fascinating about our own obsession with the motorcar. I even enjoyed Tarantino’s Death Proof, and nobody liked Death Proof.

And so to Drive, which, from the trailer at least, appeared like another tiresome Fast & Furious clone with delusions of grandeur. A slick Hollywood production. All surface. Yet for this movie Nicolas Winding Refn was awarded the Best Director prize at Cannes. No Fast & Furious movie ever achieved that.

Despite the name, Drive isn’t really a car film. Though there are cars in it. Drive is more a slick love-letter to American cinema, a Hollywood movie that’s also about Hollywood in a tradition that stretches back through the likes of Mulholland Drive and Sunset Boulevard. Los Angeles is the setting, but Hollywood is everywhere in this movie, it breathes with a long history of pulp crime tales. It is suffused. In fact the feeling that Drive gives is of a town so steeped in the fantasy worlds of crime fiction that anyone who moves there will become wrapped up in such a story, sucked into its obsession.

Drive also stars Ryan Gosling, still on the rise after a number of remarkable lead performances in indie films. He has quickly earned a reputation as an intense screen presence, and is renowned for making great personal investments in the characters he is asked to portray. Lars And The Real Girl would surely have fallen apart if it wasn’t for his quiet commitment to the title role, likewise he matched Michelle Williams beat-for-beat earlier this year in the gruelling Blue Valentine. The question is not whether Drive will be the ‘star-making’ role that pushes him onto the A list, the question is why isn’t he already there? The answer is probably his ability to out-perform the Cruises and the Kutchers that presently reign.

Refn has also pulled in some character-actor heavyweights for the supporting roles. Taking breaks from their parts in prestigious TV shows, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks provide the notable support they are known for. Hendricks is cast strikingly against type in a role that could’ve been fulfilled by anybody, whilst Cranston makes much out of little.

Gosling’s character remains nameless, a sure nod to Eastwood’s man-with-no-name roles of old. Suitably he is just as monosyllabic, to the point of parody. He even works in the Hollywood industry; a stunt driver for the movies who supplements his income by acting as a wheelman-for-hire for small-time rip-off merchants. But then he falls for new neighbour Irene (the disarmingly lovely Carey Mulligan). Irene’s husband Standard is newly out of jail, and owing protection money. In order to save Irene and her son Benecio from this criminal threat, ‘Driver’ offers to help Standard out of his hole, despite openly walking into the line of fire.

It’s all so much cliché, with it’s low-rent mobsters, money-lenders and resigned heroes, but Danish director Refn, with his day-glow pink credits and thumping Europop soundtrack pours fresh blood into what would have surely been a stale, lifeless body. With its rich, garish colour palette, deep shadows, predilection for slow motion and calculated framing, Drive looks simply divine. Refn is aware of the familiar tropes of his story, indeed he is clearly enamoured with them, and thus he has endeavoured to present them with more beauty than ever before. There have been better movies this year, but nothing has looked this good. It harks back to the thrillers of the mid-nineties, where looking cool-as-fuck was everyone’s highest priority. The opening sequence is a textbook lesson in thrilling, economic suspense. One of the best intros into a movie I can remember. And as he has previously, Gosling proves himself fascinatingly watchable. Is ‘Driver’ a hero, or a scary sociopath? It could go either way.

The movie that Drive reminds me of most is The Limey. That too was a bog-standard revenge tale heightened by a director’s singular vision to elevate it into something more poetic, more dreamlike, more substantial. Drive does feel like a dream. A dream of a type of movie perfected. And for those expecting a Fast & Furious clone, here’s some fair warning; there’s not nearly as much driving involved as you might expect. Nevertheless, despite an ending void of surprises and one or two minor leaps in logic (which, after all, Hollywood has rarely been overly concerned with), there is much here to enjoy. And no, I don’t know which cars are driven in this movie. Mostly pretty ones. One of them is a yellow one.

Score:  4

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