Drive feels like a throw back to another time, one when films were willing to take more risks and be far less sanitised than they sometimes appear these days. A distinct “guilty pleasure” (at its root it’s pure pulp) it rises above what could have easily been a small scale direct to DVD endeavour to something else by virtue of a top-notch cast and an off-kilter presence. For my money, it’s probably one of the highlights of the year film-wise, but it’s just as likely to leave people cold as well.
From the day-glo pink handwritten credits through to the electronic soundtrack, the earthly muted landscapes and the lack of dialogue it’s easy to imagine this being a re-release of a much loved eighties classic – indeed it brought to mind films such as Thief and The Driver in it’s strong, silent protagonist and sense of moral duty. The only indication that this was a very modern film were the levels of violence – it’s difficult to imagine a mainstream release from those times that would push the audience to extremes as much as this sometimes does, but everything else is there. It’s easy to imagine this as a lost Michael Mann or Paul Schrader film from the period.
Instead Nicholas Winding-Refn (last seen delivering the wonderfully strange Valhalla Rising) directs, once again with the seeming intention not to produce the same film twice. Interestingly all of the action appears to take place either in close up or from the perspective of the main character – despite the film being about the open road there are no long shots that I can remember. He also coaxes a series of superb performances from everyone, non more than Ryan Gosling who has the difficult job of taking a character who completely hides his personality from everyone but still remains sympathetic – part of this is down to the fact that everyone else (with two obvious exceptions) is out to get him. Elsewhere, Ron Perlman does his best Ron Perlman impression and Albert Brooks (better known for his light comedies) is truly terrifying as the local mob boss at the centre of everything.
It’s the violence that sticks in the mind however, after forty odd minutes of introducing all of the characters the film explodes into a cycle of event / revenge. Two virtuoso sequences are particularly shocking – the first involving the use of a claw hammer and the second a close quarters fight in a lift that ends with a man being kicked to death. In both cases the human body is shown to be a fragile thing that’s barely held together by a layer of skin. The body count is written on the clothing of our protagonist who looks more like a butcher than a driver come the end of the film. The savagery is never commented on but rather seen as something he needs to do to protect those he loves (a curiously chaste affair, the protagonist – we never learn his name – realises that an affair with her is not what she needs) and more often than not is out of self defence.
Lastly, it’s great to see a film that packs all of this into ninety minutes (nearly a full hour shorter than your standard Hollywood release) without missing anything out. This brevity and the simplicity of the plot being the perfect hanger for something else, as the often repeated line on the score states “Don’t try to be a hero, be a human being”. Our protagonist doesn’t succeed in winning the day (it’s arguable how clean he is come the end of the day) but rather allows himself to open up.
Well recommended, but with the caveat that those that have problems with extreme levels of violence may be advised to stay away.