Drive (2011)

15 October 2011

Drive - which was almost ruined by someone munching in the fourth row - is a stylish and stylised pastiche of films such as 1978's The Driver and 1985's To Live and Die in L.A., and even perhaps 1981's Diva. Its first half is a sparse mood-piece low on incident and dialogue, as Ryan Gosling's Driver falls for neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan); the return of Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) from prison propels the film into its more action-packed second half, with slow-motion set-pieces lending a cooling aestheticisation to bursts of horrific violence.

Cliff Martinez's score is typically and fittingly atmospheric in its rich, minimalist ambience, imbuing a contradictorily immersive quality to the primary colours of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel's visual palette: the blues of the night scenes are as beautifully vibrant as the interior at Shannon's (Bryan Cranston) car garage is deliriously encroaching, while the yellows make Los Angeles look like some worn-out dirt-track past its prime (the main character is a Hollywood stuntman who makes a side living as a getaway driver for whichever criminals hire him).

Ron Perlman's cartoonish (g)angster, meanwhile, wears an aggressively purple shirt that marks him out in a scene overwhelmed by bright variants of red. There's plenty of blood spraying, splashing and squelching about in the film's second half; as a visual warning, Gosling chats to Mulligan at her place of work, her red uniform complimented by the giant, unopened bottle of ketchup at the table between them.

This is self-conscious kitsch whose characters are playing at being something beyond the deliberate ciphers they are. A romantic kiss in an elevator is fetishized upon (with a shift between objective lighting to a subjectified chiaroscuro and a slowing of time that makes it last forever) by its participants before one of them stomps a villain's head to mush. Earlier in the film, one character, having been beaten up by two thugs to whom he owes money, sits and watches on impotently as our protagonist walks past him (in slow-mo) to check on the scene's main concern: the debtor's young, innocent son.

Cinematic symbolism of this sort shuns realism to another realm, and our disbelief is suspended, happily or otherwise, when a few scenes later we're treated to a superlatively tense heist scene - and the film's second chase set-piece. Directing all of this is Nicolas Winding Refn, whose previous films - 2008's Bronson and the Pusher trilogy (1996-2005) among them - also ooze machismo and self-reflexive energy. Drive, adapted by Hossein Amini from James Sallis's novel, is Winding Refn's most explicit example of a genre film to date, for which he won the best directing award at this year's Cannes.

Clearly intended not to be taken seriously, Drive is a fine example of what can be achieved even when a film's characters are weak and its story tired; focusing instead on the spatial and temporal pre-requisites of an involving aesthetic arrangement in action set-pieces (that opening chase sequence is wonderful: note the use of police sirens before Gosling's foot even hits the accelerator), the film is an enjoyable, thrilling actioner.