Drive is that rare tour de force film that has received rave reviews but which left me feeling a little empty and, frankly, bored. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a sure-fire cinematic and technical achievement; it looks absolutely stunning and is rife with beautiful shots – the cinematography alone succeeds in bringing the city of Los Angeles to a glamorous, seedy life.
The film has this old school, film noir, pulpy quality to it that would feel right at home in the 1980s, and it’s all thanks to Nicolas Winding Refn’s classy direction (to be fair, the killer soundtrack has this great retro, Europop feel); still, this is a fantastic example of a director at work. Refn, whose previous directorial credits include Valhalla Rising and Bronson, has created a stylish crime drama that certainly stands apart from anything else I’ve seen this year.
Drive begins with a mesmerising sequence that wouldn’t be too out of place in Jason Statham’s much more action-packed Transporter series. I had high hopes after such a slick intro so it’s a damn shame that it ends up being the best part of the film. To be sure, I’m no action junkie – the film makes effective use of moments of violence rather than abusing lengthy action scenes – but there were long stretches where not much happens at all, dialogue or otherwise. It’s boring. There’s simply too much style over substance and the narrative just isn’t bold enough to match the rest of the production.
As it’s name suggests, Drive is about an unnamed Driver who drives (duh!). Inhabited by Ryan Gosling, the Driver is moulded in the tradition of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and bears similarity to the heroes of classic Samurai epics. He exists as less of a character and more of a husk defined by his behaviours. Occasionally he’ll show sympathy, insecurity or anger but he never reveals a stable, relatable personality. This proved problematic because it prevented me from becoming invested in the character and thus the story at large.
Gosling’s Driver works as both a mechanic and stunt car driver while moonlighting as a wheelman in getaways. In this latter role he employs a strict code of conduct – you tell him a time and place and he’s your man for five minutes. It’s a nice touch but he struggles to find a less existential existence. Gosling is a good actor but his Driver comes across as something stilted, to be studied or observed as a mere technical achievement in storytelling rather than a genuinely compelling character in his own right.
Carey Mulligan (An Education) plays Irene, the Driver’s neighbour, who is the film’s damsel in distress. Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac; Sucker Punch) is released from prison after serving his sentence but is coerced by threats against his wife and young son Benecio (Kaden Leos) into performing a heist to pay back protection money owed. Standard sees the Driver as an ally so requisitions his skills as a professional in order to help him get the money. The heist doesn’t go to plan however, so it’s up to the Driver to set things right.
It’s a straightforward story, underpinned by the strength of its supporting cast which includes Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. Special mention should go to Bryan Cranston as Shannon, who is the closest thing to a father figure that the Driver has – and one of the film’s few likable characters.
In the hands of a lesser director Drive would have come across as a straight-to-DVD rental. The narrative is really nothing special, but Refn elevates the material through his inspired direction. If I were to pick it up on home release Drive would fit in nicely between Leon and Pulp Fiction in my collection. But I’m not going to pick it up – once was enough for me.