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Driver (played by Ryan Gosling in super-intense mode) enters an elevator with the nice girl who lives down the hall.  As he walks in he notices a big guy in the elevator who looked as if he was about to get off on their floor, before he saw that Driver and the girl were getting into the elevator.  Driver takes note of this as he walks into the elevator, and keeps the thug in his periphery as the elevator descends.  Then, in a fairytale sweep guaranteed to melt cinemagoers’ hearts, he swivels in elegant slow-motion and kisses the girl.  This isn’t just any kiss though.  It’s a culmination of all the repressed sexual energy of the film, and exactly what we want, shot in a luminous soft light as the surrounding frame is darkened.  But it is also a goodbye kiss, as the sensual reverie explodes into an act of violence so shocking the filmmaker can only show you a glimpse of it.  The girl is left looking at Driver, their entire relationship changed forever, even as it’s barely begun.  In retrospect, the emotional and visual range of this indelible sequence is extraordinary, beginning with the seductive frisson of the stolen kiss and ending with a depiction of body altering violence, the overall tone resembling a Sofia Coppola film interrupted by David Cronenberg.  True beauty followed by disgust, the heavenly interrupted by vile (and disturbingly enjoyable) violence.  This is the modus operandi of Drive.

Such is the nature of this remarkable film by Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director who previously explored the recesses of violent masculinity in the cult Tom Hardy vehicle Bronson (2008).  Reaction to that film was divisive, as charges of exploitation mingled with the general consensus that Refn was a remarkable visual filmmaker drawn to the darker impulses that govern savage criminality.  That the film was a portrait of Britain’s self-styled ‘most dangerous man’, and thus demanded an iconoclastic, ambiguous telling escaped some critics, but his best director victory at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for this lean, deliriously entertaining debut Hollywood production has put him squarely on the map as a serious auteur with the capacity to tell a story that is both artistically rich and exhilarating to watch.  Trust me, the second half of the film shifts into a gear that will make most action-thrillers green with envy, whilst displaying a beauty one almost never sees in this bloated genre.  Welcome to the art-house action movie, guaranteed to ruffle some feathers in the local cinema.  An American woman is reportedly set to sue her local cinema where the film was shown, claiming that the film was misrepresented as a ‘Fast and Furious’ type action flick!  This kind of reaction shows how complacent most contemporary filmgoers are, and films like this that shake things up and dare to take the risk of incurring audience wrath are, frankly, needed.

The plot of the film is pure pulp, and is adapted by Hossein Amini from a novel by James Sallis.  Driver (his identity so intimately connected to his function as a driver that he has no real need for an individual self beyond his specific skill-set) is a movie stunt-driver by day and getaway driver by night, his skills hired out by Bryan Cranston’s Shannon (showcasing some of the talent he has displayed so consistently on T.V’S Breaking Bad).  Living a Spartan life in his apartment, he has no apparent human connections beyond his work and his car.  Then he begins a relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, neighbours who live down the hall.  The father is serving time in prison, and their sweet, fledgling romance represents a possibility for change.  Meanwhile, Shannon introduces Driver to Bernie (Albert Brooks), a mid-level criminal figure who agrees to sponsor Shannon for the development of a stock car that Driver will, ahem, drive.  When Irene’s husband is released from jail, and people who he owes money come a knockin’, the narrative kicks into overdrive, and these separate narrative threads dovetail in unexpected and extremely violent convolutions that force Driver to abandon his previous functions and become the real hero that the song by College triumphs at two crucial points on the film’s soundtrack.

Sure, its pulp-noir material, but that is no bad thing when it’s delivered with such delicious style and brilliant performances by a uniformly great cast.  Gosling is nothing short of tremendous, and gives further evidence of his young De Niro reputation.  His face is so subtly expressive that you could be forgiven for initially thinking he isn’t doing much of anything, but repeat viewings reveal what a masterly example of minimalism and barely concealed emotions his performance is.  Carey Mulligan (who also appears in another award season favourite, Shame) shines in a thinly written role, achieving a gravitas in her depiction of Irene that most other actresses couldn’t dream of.  But the real surprise is Brooks, whose sleazy Bernie is a complete 180 from many of his own portrayals as the lovable nebbish in films such as Broadcast News (1987) and Mother (1990).  Many people have drawn comparisons between this film and Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and it is interesting how few of these reviewers note that Albert Brooks is in both films.  He succeeds in making Bernie both terrifying in his penchant for violence and strangely endearing in his own brand of grubby pathos, particularly revealed in his relationship with Shannon (“They broke his pelvis.  He never had a lotta luck”).  His gravelly vocal performance alone is enough to give you the creeps.  The connection to Taxi Driver is interesting, with both Driver and Travis Bickle acting as saviour knights to perceived innocents in attempts at redemption.  But Driver is not Travis Bickle, whose voiceover is all self-loathing and disgust.  Driver is far more an innocent than Bickle, without the same delusions of grandeur and unfocused rage.  Scorcese’s film reflects a post-Vietnam urban nightmare, but Refn’s L.A. seems to almost float outside of time, with modern technology conspicuously absent for the most part in a pure movie-space that valorises the analogue in an increasingly digital age.  Refn never shoves his references down your throat, as a certain excitable American director of pulp fictions can do to his detriment.  You can take Scorcese’s epic of urban decay from it, or Steve McQueen’s iconic character in Bullit (1968).  Apparently Driver’s jacket is a nod to Kenneth Anger’s experimental film Scorpio Rising (1964).  But regardless of all these departure points, Drive is very much its own film, and its retro rhythms and intertextuality never detract from the purity of Refn’s vision. 

Refn does a virtuoso job of delivering the melodramatic, often explicitly violent jolts of Amini’s screenplay whilst simultaneously presenting one of the most flat-out beautiful films you will see all year.  Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel‘s L.A would give Michael Mann a run for his money, particularly in the seductive opening heist sequence with the sweeping lights of a L.A.P.D helicopter tracking Driver through the gleaming glass cityscape.  But this isn’t to say that the film lacks sophistication or that it is merely glossy surface.  I was struck by how much I was moved by the film, especially when one considers the underbelly it portrays and the retro-stylisation that so often can lead to an emotional distance between the viewer and the film.  This is helped immeasurably by Cliff Martinez’s suitably lush, hypnotic synth score.  Driver’s journey from dead-end underdog to almost mythic hero makes the recent crop of superhero movies seem banal and limp by comparison, and Gosling’s superb performance of gesture and intimation ensures that Driver, crucially, is a character that you won’t forget easily.  In classic noir tradition, the anti-hero has to go beyond the confines of the law in order to achieve his self-actualisation.  The stirrings of romance initiate his drive towards individuality, and the acts of violence are necessary rites of passage that punctuate his struggle.  Much like in the elevator sequence I described at the beginning, love and violence, the pure and base, are inextricably linked in the telling of this story, so don’t let the extreme moments of violence trick you into thinking this is merely an exploitative nasty.  A modern classic of pure cinema.

Rating: 9/10

A Real Human Being - Drive (2011)

by Jethro Kayat

9.00/10 ( 1 Vote )
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