A 1973 Chevy Malibu. Not quite the quintessential example of the American ‘Muscle Car’, but certainly in keeping with the aesthetics of the needlessly large, gas guzzling, yet somehow intensely attractive beasts that once roamed the American Highways, cruises through the streets of a Los Angeles straight out of the Michael Mann textbook. Brightly lit corporate headquarters aim towards the sky, surrounded by a shimmering neo-noir freeway vista that stretches on forever, a mid 1980s vision of the perfect city, detachment as a dreamy aspiration. Inside the car though, a beautiful couple, the man, mesmerising, with the channelled stoic cool of Delon in Le Samourai (1967), McQueen in Bullitt (1968) and O’Neal in The Driver (1978), is tempered with a warmth, exchanging stolen glances with the Jean Seberg esq waif like beauty in the passenger seat. The Soundtrack, reminiscent of Brian Eno’s ambient Apollo soundscapes swells towards transcendence as their hands clasp over the gearstick, and my heat skips a beat with joy.
I’m concerned, has Nicolas Winding Refn somehow found a Being John Malkovich (1999) like portal into my mind? As with Drive, he somehow seems to have formed a chimerical combination of everything I look for in a movie. Whilst it carries all the signifiers of 80’s pulp genre cinema I love so much (Neon titles, pounding score, car chases, love story, mobster double crossings and a vengeance delivered with Tom Savini esq levels of grue), the delivery echoes the influences of my even more beloved 1970’s New Hollywood (characters defined by mood and actions rather than needless exposition, Robby Muller esq. Cinematography and a disturbing thesis on the violent capabilities of man). It’s not without a knowing wink does the gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) deliver the line "I used to produce movies. In the 80s. Kind of like action films. Sexy Stuff. One critic called them European. I thought they were shit".
The plot, as should be the case in mock genre exercises is simple enough, a lonely ‘best in his trade’ wheelman/mechanic/part-time stuntman finds himself falling in love with the young mother in the next apartment, unfortunately the young mother’s husband is being released from prison and owes money, which if not paid will see retribution served upon the wife and child. Upon agreeing to help for her sake, the driver finds himself involved in a botched heist, which leads to a price being put on his head by local Mafiosi.
Our unnamed protagonist (Ryan Gosling), as stated, carries himself like the anti-heroes of films past. He opens the film as the archetypical cinema wheelman, calm, collected; every word and move carefully planned (and like most male viewers, proves the subject of my biggest mancrush since John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)). Yet unlike his hollow eyed Melvillian predecessors, this detachment begins to crumble upon meeting Irene (Carey Mulligan), whom his desperation to protect as the film spirals out of control begins to reveal a hitherto unseen proclivity for violence buried within him, he can and indeed shockingly does lose control of his Eastwood toothpick chewing surface cool, though rather than feed us a backstory explaining away this side of his nature, this remains as an ambiguity. As this violence begins to take hold, Refn asks questions about the brutal capabilities of man when cornered, and also by making it all so visceral asks questions of the viewers enjoyment (parallels with Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) haven’t gone unnoticed).
It has been noted by many critics of the film that considering its title is Drive, there is a distinct lack of this titular aspect. I’d disagree with this, there are several showcase scenes showing our protagonist at work, and rather than the empty spectacle of quick cuts that usually make up the car chase, Refn again chooses to echo the subtler pleasures of a cinema thought lost. Like in the previously mentioned Bullitt or Two Lane Blacktop (1971), the sounds of a rev counter redlining, and a quick gear shift carry just as much excitement as a crossroads pileup.
On I could go, but I think my love for the film is suitably conveyed. This is very much fanboy worship thinly disguised as criticism, for this is one of my favourite films of recent times. I’m male, 18-30, and have pretentions towards enjoying a more cult and ‘cultured’ variant on genre cinema, it was pretty much destiny for me to fall in love with this picture, and so it goes...