Drive, the recent Nicolas Winding Refn film that has further catapulted its male star Ryan Gosling into Hollywood’s stratosphere, is a very, very good looking film. Every aspect of it is visually sumptuous; from the distinctive typeface used for the credits to the inspired casting of Ron Perlman (possessed of one of the most intriguing faces in American cinema) as the chief villain.
It tells the story of Gosling’s unnamed mechanic, moonlighting as a getaway driver, and his developing relationship with his neighbour (played by Carey Mulligan) and her young son.
But it’s hard to pin down exactly what the film is “about” and whether it’s trying to “say something”. The outbursts of extreme violence from Gosling’s character are jarringly at odds with his quiet, sensitive demeanour. Is the message about the potential for brutality inside all of us? Are we meant to read the driver’s attempt to find the right moral path through an underworld of violence, corruption and betrayal as a metaphor for the attempt we must all make to find our way through societies based largely on those same values? I’m not sure.
I’m also not sure that it matters much, as Refn seems more interested in how the film looks than in what it’s saying. That’s not to accuse it of superficiality; Drive is a triumph of cinematic style. Even (perhaps especially) in the film’s most violent moments, it’s clear how much attention has been lavished on the film’s look.
In one particularly brutal moment Gosling kills a man by repeatedly stamping on his face. The scene is cut expertly, showing the audience just enough to convey the intense horror and shock at the bloody incident that Carey Mulligan’s character (who witnesses it) feels, but not quite enough to tip it over the edge into cheap splatterfest territory.
Some might find it shallow, but unlike some of Quentin Tarantino’s work (to which the film has been compared), Drive doesn’t just feel like a blunderbuss explosion of motifs, tropes and references that the director thought might look cool. There is reference in Drive to various classic noir films, and most explicitly to 1978’s The Driver — but the references work as respectful homage rather than the tacky pastiche which characterises Tarantino at his laziest.
Drive feels like it has been meticulously crafted to give audiences a whole range of experiences and elicit a whole range of reactions in a way that only very well-made cinema really can. While it is important to try to identify the “message” — intended or not — of any work of art, that shouldn’t prevent us from appreciating the art on its own terms (primarily aesthetic, in this case).
For anyone who appreciates the stylistic use to which cinema as a medium can be put, Drive should not be missed.