when i first saw the trailer for "drive" and heard that the man at its helm, dane nicholas winding refn, had been honoured at cannes with both a standing ovation and an award for best director, my first thought was "really?" because to me, the trailer looked like it could have been made for any slick action-noir, something made to draw in the slightly edgier summer blockbuster audience, but hardly the sort of thing that would wow critics. according to dom, however, who's much more plugged in to the goings-on of the film industry, the word was that "drive" was really something special, something potentially revolutionary that would mark cinema for years to come. i have to admit that, although i usually take what he says very seriously, i was still kind of skeptical. i finally convinced myself that it must simply have been the victim of a highly unimaginative trailer and that i was getting the wrong message.
as soon as the film starts, it's difficult not to immediately be struck by its visual language. winding refn has described his project as a sort of fairytale and, certainly, the setting seems to be some neverland-ish view of modern los angeles, all contrasts of garish lighting and shadows, human figures scuttling through it like foraging rats. against this, ryan gosling's nameless protagonist glides with a steely calm that illustrates his darwinian superiority- he has adapted to the conditions of life in this world and found a way to flourish.
well, flourish might be an understatement. as the film's credits roll, we find out [if we haven't already found out through the trailer] that he works as a mercenary getaway driver for criminals who are willing to pay his price and abide by his strict rules. the initial sequence, where he chauffeurs a couple of stress-addled thieves from the scene of their crime, is a flourish of directorial brilliance. it serves to immediately submerge the audience in the driver's world, but it's also a perfect introduction to the character himself. one of the film's only car chase scenes, it is less about battles of speed or force than it is a study of his methodical intelligence, where everything, even the radio he listens to, serves a purpose. by the end of the sequence, we know as much about the central character as we might in an hour of hearing him speak.
of course, we also soon find out that he has a daytime existence as well, where he works as a mechanic in a specialist's garage and does stunt driving for movies, in partnership with a gimpy father figure who dreams of achieving financial success for both of them through professional car racing. he lives a monastic sort of existence in a spartan apartment, where his connection to the "real world" is found in the form of a wordless, boyish crush on his neighbour, carey mulligan.
in contrast to his young protege, gosling's mentor is verbose, constantly and ill-advisedly talking, especially to gangster bernie rose, played by albert brooks in a much-lauded performance.
from these seeds, we can see clearly where things are heading: the driver's success is a product of his hermitic lifestyle and as circumstances conspire to link him to the outside world, things become more and more problematic.
to his credit, winding refn takes exquisite care in crafting his scenario. although it's clear that there's tension ahead and what its catalysts will be, "drive" takes its time, allowing us to enjoy the ride. the atmosphere created is like an unpleasant dream; you know that something is wrong, even though the unease has not yet resolved itself into visible form.
however, from the moment events start to rain down on the characters we've come to know, the film seems to lose its way. its stylishness, which does such a great job in augmenting the unreal atmosphere for the first part of the film, grows shallow as it degenerates into a sort of muddled crime-gone-bad caper. as much as the first part of the film promises that, even though we know what's going to happen, the filmmakers will find a way to surprise us, the last section falls a bit flat as we realise that we knew where things were headed all along.
"drive" has much to recommend it. it's a lush feast of visuals and is worth watching for this alone. gosling is solid as the controlled anti-hero whose repressed emotions are constantly threatening to erupt and ruin everything. mulligan is his perfect counterpart, sweet but with a martyr's sense of duty and a similar need for control and stability.
brooks, always under-rated as an actor, is a lot less terrifying than early reviews had lead me to believe. rather than being vicious and without conscience, he comes off more as an unbendingly pragmatic middle manager, someone who works within corporate rules, even though that corporation is a criminal syndicate. his performance, while spot-on, is representative of the film's confusion: is his character an actor behaving as he must in a world of pre-ordained effects or is he the real villain in the director's dark fairytale? the former would be an original angle, but it seems like he is supposed to be the latter and things fall a bit short.
"drive" isn't a typical action film by any means. it's clearly more linked to moody, often unsettling works like "the krays", "no country for old men" and "taxi driver", whose influence looms large over every part of refn's opus. it's easily enjoyed, moderately smart and stunning to behold, but it is not a cinematic revolution.
"drive" is currently available on blu-ray and dvd. it's nominated for an academy award for achievement in sound editing.