A Review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive

History has shown that if you choose to get into the car with Nicolas Winding Refn you’re in for quite a ride. He showed this with Bronson, where Tom Hardy played Britain’s most insatiable and inimitable criminal, and now he shows it again coaxing another brilliantly nuanced performance from an equally gifted – and equally man of the moment – actor Ryan Gosling. Interestingly Gosling himself discovered this upon offering Refn a lift home after an awkward failed first meet and greet for the film. After a few minutes Refn preceded to scream the car down, belting out the lines to a song playing on a radio, and from that stage on the two were locked in, partners in crime in the eventual brilliance that is Drive.

Gosling plays the unnamed Driver; a taciturn, reticent, modern day knight in shining armour – here it’s a champagne silk jacket dazzling in the day and attracting in the night complete with scorpion artwork, influenced itself from a story referenced in the film. Upon encountering his next door neighbour Irene, the luminous and delicate Carey Mulligan, he becomes entangled in a quest to protect her which tragically leads him further and further from the life he wishes to lead. And the fairy-tale zeitgeist is completed by the presence of characters that beset and poison our Driver’s oily Prince Charming quest to save his damsel in distress.

It’s ironic that a film so tightly edited and with such a conservative running time (at just 90 odd minutes) should begin with the ticking of a clock. For in truth every second of this movie gone is a second you’ll wish back. It feels both fresh and old, both contemporary and timeless, as if you’ve stumbled upon a long forgotten classic and from the first moments it grips you entirely. After a beginning getaway scene that’s full of suspense and technically novel – keeping the camera in the car registering every look, thought and emotion on the Driver’s face – College Electric’s delectable and hypnotic song begins to echo out across the architecture of Drive. “A real human being…and a real hero” plays as Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography beautifully frames the LA backdrop as a sprawling fairy-tale emerald metropolis.

College Electric’s fragment of the delicious and deliriously good soundtrack that rumbles beneath the film is also the most telling description of the nature of Gosling’s Driver; truly a man who lives half in the daytime, half at night. But Drive is more than the character of its magnetic lead. It’s an effervescent Los Angeles fairy-tale cocktail channelling elements of desperate desire, dedicated love and uncompromising ultra-violence all set to the pulsating rhythm of 80s synth pop that’s both masterful storytelling and utterly captivating. Part thriller, part noir, part iridescent mirrorball it’s been hailed as neon-noir and the description is not ill-fitting.

Its beginning is just one of so many fantastic scenes. Others stand out including a dreamy, whimsical car journey along a golden sun drenched waterway on the outskirts of LA. But it’s Refn’s virtuoso elevator scene that displays his talents most affectingly. It’s a whirlpool of conflicting and communing emotions, and it is the last sinew of possibility left between the Driver and Irene that disappears in such a beautifully tragic and heart breaking fashion as the lift doors close, obscuring her from his sight and his life. It’s also a transformative journey, a liminal one, in which Gosling’s character emerges afterwards in Refn’s own words a “superhero”. And he is, from this scene on, a man at once above it all and in the thick of things – the true definition of a superhero, the moment he decides to protect Irene rather than be with her.

As we come to learn more about the Driver we realise his driving has an existential quality about it, as if the only way he can process his feelings or commune with his thoughts and emotions is behind the wheel, embedded in the metal he moulds himself too – his way and meaning of life. And in the final moments as two shadows burn against a granite car park it’s the Driver’s gloves that distinguish him from the other, nothing more. Gosling’s embodiment of the character shines through throughout the movie, likely due to his preparation for the role by building the car he drives from the ground up. It’s this kind of dedication and commitment to a character that allows him to completely convince as a man with so much obvious past that we never get to see.

The initial focus on its score, dreamt up by Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ ex-drummer Cliff Martinez, isn’t a fleeting mention either as it does so much to illicit feeling in a film that is itself taciturn. The music evokes a tactile imagination of the beating heart of the movie. Refn captivates the senses with a score that has the effect of stitching us into the very fabric of the film, so enveloping is the music and the imagery on display here. In a similar fashion to Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats earlier in the year, Refn utilises dazzling audio and visual affectations to create emotional motifs that capture the heart and convey the narrative emotion in a dialogue lite, effect heavy method. It’s a truly stylish, sublime and immersive technique honed to perfection in this piece.

Refn’s sumptuous visual masterpiece quite literally oozes swagger and rightly the Cannes jury saw fit to furnish him with the prestigious Best Director prize for his work here. Blending contained moments of sheer violence, fantastic performances from all involved and a cavalcade of songs and imagery that entrance and thrill the senses, this is very much an instant classic. As well as being achingly good – in that it hurts when you’re not watching it – it’s undoubted to leave you catatonic with cool.

4/4

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~ by Alexander Rowland on September 20, 2011.

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