Breathtaking cinematography, and a stimulating soundtrack, work together to make Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive one of the most seductive pieces of cinema in recent years. Its polished neo-noir style is intoxicating, taking a lustrous Los Angeles skyline at night as a backdrop to its story of crime and revenge. Often criticized for its overuse of the pause, it is the film’s confident handling of tension and catharsis that makes it a silently powerful thriller.
Ryan Gosling is our hero without a name, the protagonist of a modern day fairytale, and on paper his story is simple. A mechanic turned stunt man and getaway driver, he befriends his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), and through helping her husband, ends up inadvertently involved in some bloody mob affairs. A film of two halves, the first sees Gosling’s character wrapped up in a serene romance, bonding with Irene whilst her husband ‘Standard Gabriel’ is locked away in prison. Montages of their blossoming relationship are set to 80s synthpop as the two take long and quiet drives together down lamp lit streets and the Los Angeles River. Everything seems to be going well until Standard arrives home, and it’s his presence that sours proceedings. The tone of the film changes, its focus shifted from the blissful infatuation of young lovers, to an unnerving conflict involving mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman).
A simple enough plot is made incredibly impactful due to its imaginative and patient execution. Refn, and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, craft a spellbinding world where electric lights intrude on dark scenes, casting coloured glows over faces and heightening dramatic shadows. Silhouettes, side profiles and parallels are played with to great effect, as faces and forms are warped under odd lighting, and characters are strikingly framed by their urban surroundings. Certain features or details are intensely focused on, and there is an almost unbearable restraint within every scene, making any eventual action or speech far more affecting, and any violence far more horrifying. Rather than be packed with meaningless shouting and threats, the film takes its time building a dangerous atmosphere. Dialogue in scenes is sparse, but the silence never feels awkward. Instead, the viewer is treated to standout images such as our driver walking around in a quilted silk jacket, emblazoned with the image of a scorpion. Its fearless decisions such as this which make Drive such a bravely visual treat.
The film gets a lot of its emotional and sensual power from its music. A mixture of original songs by Cliff Martinez, and electronic pop numbers by Kavinsky, Desire, and College (one of David Grellier’s musical projects), the soundtrack is a stirring 80s tribute, not just supplementary, and in many ways the film’s fuel (excuse the pun). Cold, dry beats and robotic vocals manage to lend scenes an unexpected poignancy. From the very moment “Nightcall” kicks at the beginning, with its synthesised refrain and sinister vocoder, to the reintroduction of “A Real Hero” at the end, it’s obvious that the sounds and lyrics are as integral to the plot as the script. Martinez’s metallic sounds not only compliment the exteriors of the automobiles, but also stress that the characters’ actions are informed by the shining city in which they live.
A study of loneliness as well as identity, the film is a thrilling but melancholy tale of a hero’s isolation. Gosling’s driver is vulnerable yet brutal, dreaming of a life of love whilst coming to terms with his true nature. Mulligan plays damsel in distress with a strength that is apparent in her capability to raise a child alone and in a dangerous environment. The two are perfect for each other, and have a natural chemistry which only makes their fate all the more agonizing to watch. In Drive, Refn has managed to put together a fairytale that reflects a solitary life in the 21st Century. Every aspect is highly stylised, from the typeface and colour of the credits, to the costume choices. It is this heavy style which lulls the viewer into thinking that the film will be an easy ride, one of aesthetics rather than profundity. An abrupt shift in gears is what proves this to be false, as characters begin to deliver unexpected actions. By the film’s close, what has been cleverly demonstrated is that it is possible to involve both style and substance, and still have both pack hard punches.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★★