By Don Simpson | September 15, 2011
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (novel)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Kaden Leos, James Biberi
Still rivers run deep, or so the saying goes, and there are few anti-heroes — especially in ultra-violent thrillers — who remain as cool, calm and collected as the unnamed stunt driver and garage mechanic referred to only as Driver (Ryan Gosling). Eerily void of emotion, Driver utilizes his stoic composure to convey his toughness and intimidate others. Like several of Clint Eastwood’s silver screen personas — especially his collaborations with Sergio Leone — Driver speaks sparingly yet bluntly. Outfitted in the same costume throughout the film — a white bomber jacket with a yellow scorpion embroidered on the back — Driver accessorizes with a toothpick in his mouth. (Have you heard the story about the scorpion and the frog?)
Driver presumably has no family and no history to speak of, yet we are left wondering if something incredibly traumatic pushed Driver into his solitary shell. It is certainly believable that somewhere in the deep recesses of those pale blue eyes is a raging Neanderthal man itching to unleash an unimaginable wrath of pain upon anyone who crosses him or endangers those he loves.
Driver’s love is directed towards a doe-eyed young mother, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and and her son Benecio (Kaden Leos) who reside in an apartment down the hall. When Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison, Driver is prompted to take insurmountable risks to protect his neighbors. Driver is left holding a bag of a million bucks — unfortunately for him, it is one of those money bags that seems to destroy everyone who touches it.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is nothing short of amazing. Refusing to fall prey to any classic tropes of Hollywood thrillers, Refn’s approach to Drive is sort of like Miami Vice on Quaaludes, right down to the electronic soundtrack (featuring Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx, Desire, College, and The Chromatics) that sounds like 1980s pop music being played on quarter-speed; and after the pastel pink opening credits, I was half expecting to see Gosling dressed up like Don Johnson’s Crockett. Unlike any thriller, heist or revenge tale from this side of the Atlantic, Drive boasts a uniquely European style and pacing. Whether or not audiences in the United States will be patient enough remains to be seen. Drive‘s tone is undeniably uncomfortable and ugly; heck, it is brazenly brutal.
While on the subject of brutality, I have some problems with Drive‘s machismo message. Drive is about a man protecting his woman — a woman who is not even his. One key outburst of skull-crunching violence is essentially Driver’s way of wooing Irene, proving his manliness and justifying his worth beyond just driving her and Benecio around Los Angeles. Basically, Driver is trying to convince Irene that he is man enough to protect her and Benecio. Thankfully, though, Irene’s response to Driver’s violent tendencies is rational rather than fictional.
I perceived the purpose of the extreme violence in Drive to be solely for shock value, just like in most horror films; while the violence in Refn’s Bronson is 100% necessary — the film would not work if it was told in any other way. Driver is portrayed as a protector and savior (arguably a very delusional one) but Michael Peterson’s (Tom Hardy) violent behavior in Bronson is never portrayed as “good” or “positive” or “necessary”; in fact, Bronson constantly condemns the violence.
I would argue further that by casting Gosling in the role of Driver, the audience is more prone to side with him and accept his choices. Gosling’s dashing good looks make us forget that Driver is a thief and a violent psychopath. There is no denying that Gosling’s Driver is quite likable; but Driver is more than a man protecting the people he cares about, he is a deranged individual who does not even flinch after brutally killing people (not unlike Peterson, except Peterson is unlikable). Sure Driver is enacting revenge upon the bad guys, but is extreme violence really the most appropriate way to handle this situation?
That said — there is no denying Gosling’s effectiveness as Driver and Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks all make interesting appearances. But mostly I commend Refn for his directorial decisions. Despite any gripes I have about the intensity of the violence and the overtly machismo message, it is impossible to deny that Drive is an incredibly unique film that pushes boundaries and will hopefully help raise the bar for Hollywood thrillers.