Drive (2011)

The cult movie that launched heartthrob Ryan Gosling into the major league stratosphere is, arguably, one of the bleakest, most beautiful looks at a life of crime this side of The Godfather and, following the release of follow up, Only God Forgives, the discussion surrounding this most un-Hollywood of Hollywood films has jump-started all over again. In fact, the most damning critique of Refn’s film is that it could not possibly, and indeed does not, compare to Drive, but are we seeing it through rose-tinted glasses, assuming Gosling’s classic good looks, some beautiful shots of Los Angeles, and lots of bloody violence amount to more than they do?

Based on the novel, of the same name, by James Sallis, Drive follows Gosling’s unnamed driver as he, er, drives around L.A., in a spiffy jacket and gloves, performing stunts on movies and repairing cars, as day jobs, and on getaway duties for local, dodgy characters on the side. His apartment is sparse, barely even lived in, and he is a man of few words. However, all of that changes when he meets his neighbour, Irene, played by the suitably normal-looking Carey Mulligan, who has her own baggage in the form of a young son and a husband in prison. When the latter is released, the driver finds himself in a difficult position, as he struggles with his feelings for Irene, while trying to stay out of trouble, and protect her at the same time.

Drive is a gorgeous film, which feels much lighter than its subject matter should really allow, as even the prolonged sequences of visceral, bloody violence seem bathed in an otherworldly glow. Some may argue this is thanks to Gosling’s James Dean-like coolness, but he’s merely a puppet. Cliff Martinez’s melancholic, unsettling score and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography combine to create an atmosphere that is somehow both bleak and hopeful, providing an opportunity for romance and harsh, violent outbursts, in almost equal measure. This is a dark world, populated almost exclusively by horrible people.

Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is the only sort-of good guy, a kindly mechanic who tries to use Gosling for good instead of evil, but there’s no room for his niceties here, and his good deeds do not go unpunished. Though Gosling’s antihero is a bit of a sap, when he is up against crime kingpins – played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, both of whom are in full-on Mafia mode – he comes into his own, administering his own, lethal brand of justice. These are the only moments when Gosling is believable as anything more than that sopping wet dude from The Notebook, though his pseudo New York accent is questionable. One particular scene, in an elevator, is gruesome enough to transform the film entirely, from love story to crime thriller, in a moment. It’s short, but seems to stretch on for hours, much like the infamous hammer sequence in Kill List. It, along with several other instances of shocking, intense violence, makes a case for Drive as a kind of Not Quite Horror, horror film.

The world it presents to us is dark, unyielding, and ultimately hopeless, but it seems to exist in the light, which is, in itself, more horrifying – this is a place in which the worst crimes happen behind the doors of an otherwise innocuous pizza place, or garage. Earlier this year, comparisons were made between Drive and the lucid, dreamlike Elijah Wood shocker Maniac, and, though the latter is a more vicious film, the two exist in the same sort of movie limbo. They are, arguably, both horror films, that lull the audience into a false sense of security, by utilising the backdrop of everyday life, and exploiting the horrors beneath the surface. Each is set against the backdrop of a wonderfully dark L.A., wherein unknown terrors hide in every corner and only bad people exist. Gosling is more believable as a love interest, but when he turns, and he does, quite impressively, he is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s comforting to know he can move to the dark side, when needs be – especially after his near-comatose performance in Only God Forgives.

Drive was a cult classic before it was even out of cinemas, and it’s easy to get swept up in its stunning, melancholic, Californian vibes. It is ultimately a story of bad people doing terrible things. Gosling, in a lot of ways, is perfect, for the wordless, seemingly amoral driver, but it is Sigel’s cinematography, and Refn’s direction, that are the real stars here.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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