Thursday, 6 October 2011

Drive [Review]

If you’ve ever played the PlayStation classic Driver, then the opening sequence of Drive should look inherently familiar. It’s a car chase the way car chases should be done; it’s not over the top, it’s exquisitely directed, and carries the cool, collected ambience of John Tanner’s effortless vigilantism. It’s an exceptional introduction to an exceptional film; one that oozes style and charm whilst blending an amalgam of genre conventions into what can only be termed an ‘arthouse blockbuster’.

Following the story of a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway vehicle for local crooks, Drive immediately introduces its protagonist’s proficiency behind the wheel through a precise and skilful chase sequence - one that sees the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) help a pair of burglars escape a helicopter pursuit. It’s an effective introduction, and immediately sets the tone of the film through the distinguished camerawork - Gosling enjoys plenty of low angles to establish his control of the situation - and beautifully executed lighting, in the neon nightscapes of Los Angeles.

Such landscapes, emphasised through the scenic panning shots of the opening titles, indicate a neo-noir vibe to Drive that’s mixed to great effect with an ensemble of other genre conventions. At times it drifts towards something of a 70s slant, reminiscent of the Scorsese great Taxi Driver (1976), whilst the hot pink, cursive titles and lavish use of gore suggest something of a Tarantino-esque grindhouse format. Whilst these features are not so unique when each is presented alone, the mesh of all leads to something quite untypical - so it’s with great credit to director Nicolas Refn that it’s executed so beautifully.

Bursting with symbolic flair, Refn’s vision is unique; it’s a slower-paced effort, but one that manages to capture its audience with gracious ease. Unlike recent crime thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the slow, methodical storyboarding here works to great effect, absorbing the audience into the melancholy mind of The Driver, as his true persona is laid bare.

In many ways, however, Drive is deceptive; not least in its titular form - at just four points in the film does Gosling sit behind the wheel for any extended period of time. Indeed, following the opening sequence, Drive takes rather more of a romantic turn, through the introduction of neighbour Irene and her son Benicio in our protagonist’s life. Thus follows a sepia-doused montage of Gosling seemingly playing the natural doting father to Benicio, whose own paternal influence lies incarcerated for an unknown crime. While seemingly out of place in terms of what we’re shown beforehand, these nostalgic and uplifting moments give Drive a well-placed injection of heart and soul.

But of course, as must inevitably happen, Benicio’s father, Standard (even Irene asks at one point, “where’s the deluxe version?”), shows up again - released from prison, and carrying baggage, in the form of a hefty debt of protection money. It’s not long before Irene and Benicio are threatened, and so in steps The Driver to help. Matters become awry after a fatal pawn shop robbery, and soon we’re knee deep in a web of treachery, lies and deceit. It’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s often enough unpredictable that it’s suitable for purpose. Sadly, the finale bows to storytelling convention maybe a little too heavily, but such a slight flaw can easily be overlooked for all that’s come before it.

Gosling himself is superb; forever emblazoned with that unique vacant determinism, his character is just as absorbing as the film. He’s a modern day Travis Bickle in many ways, if slightly more ambitious behind the wheel. Just like Travis, the unnamed Driver’s character has flaws; he is effortlessly awkward, and yet carries a certain charm and nervous smile that so brilliantly mask his psychopathic tendencies that the Driver’s acts of violence feel as though they are a twist in and as of themselves. The character’s wild extremes suggest something of a hyper reality about him; the representation of each of us, of our highs and our lows, drawn out and plastered onto a screen, in the form of this beautifully menacing, reserved and yet likeable Driver.

It’s a stunning but shattering lecture in storytelling from Refn; his characters all with an impetus to an end that so define their status. Carey Mulligan delights as the soft-spoken, kind-hearted and motherly Irene; again, a character with flaws - just look at her choice of husband - but one who you can’t help but sympathise for. Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman lie opposite our convoluted heroes, both excelling in their twisted nature; Perlman the self-serving, belligerent mobster, and Brooks the coldly apologetic investor. At times one might even sympathise for Brooks’ actions, though as the film progresses and his true character is revealed, it is not sympathy Refn draws on; merely a sheer contempt for his deeds. The role reversal is implemented perfectly, in stellar efforts from both screenwriter Hossein Amini and Brooks himself.

A unique, beautiful vision, executed with a suitably twisted grace, Drive is methodical, yet for the most part unpredictable - a stirring achievement from director Refn. Definitely one of the greats of the 21st Century - improbable sequel pending, you won’t see another film like it.


See also: Taxi Driver (1976)

Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac
Bold Films, 100 mins, 23/09/11

Synopsis: Los Angeles, Hollywood - a stuntman-cum-getaway driver becomes embroiled in the sleazy world of debt, embezzlement, theft and mafia wars, as a heist gone wrong results in a contract on his own head.


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