Saturday, 22 October 2011
Drive is a wonderfully minimalist title, and one which not only describes, but encapsulates the very existence of Ryan Gosling's vacant, ghostly driver, whose cogito ergo sum as he imperatively puts it is, 'I drive.' The film opens with 'The Driver' assisting a robbery as a getaway driver in most probably the coolest opening to a film in recent memory, and later it is revealed he daylights as a stunt driver and is poised to become a racing driver under the patronage of a local garage owner, Shannon. However, there is mob interest in the form of Albert Brooks' menacing Bernie Rose, and the driver's life soon veers off course into a web of indebted money and murder. Notice the several driving metaphors I'll be using here - as many have interpreted the film, Drive is a modern continuation of the existentialist road movie: life is a drive, albeit without the sentimental chaff about twists and turns.
But that is exactly what happens to Gosling's driver, and it takes on a much more disturbing path. His straight shooting driver only knows one thing, and has rigidly defined principles: on getaway drives he gives 5 minutes to get in and out, anything longer and they're on their own. He resembles to an extent Robert de Niro's Neil McCauley in Michael Mann's Heat, whose discipline is never to get attached to anything that he can't walk out on 'if you can't see the heat around the corner', and who is a similarly cold character. And the comparison doesn't stop there, as both men inhabit a visually cold environment with coldly murderous characters, as with Albert Brooks' ostensibly calm but murderous mobster. When the driver gets involved in the murky business of debt and blood money, his principles are thrown out the window, his life is ripped apart and he reacts with a psychosis comparable to that of Travis Bickle or Patrick Bateman. It is tantamount to trauma for the driver, and Ryan Gosling plays the switch from passive observer to avenging angel with a superbly disturbing modulation in performance. The explosions of violence that attend to his path of vengeance are genuinely shocking, and despite protestations by some viewers of gratuity, it is entirely part of the driver's character, whose spectrum of morality is so confused and polarised that he can only respond to injustice with the most excessive retribution. The film itself is split into two halves, as the second half is so in contrast with the dreamy lethargy of the first that it should be understood as a deliberate and masterful control of atmosphere by Nicolas Winding Refn. His direction is fresh if indebted partly to other directors such as Michael Mann, and with any justice, he should be duly nominated come awards season.
The extreme stylisation of the film from its neo-noirish visuals to its synth 80s throwback soundtrack also swathes it in a mood of dreaminess, and as the driver's life descends into disarray the stylisation serves to represent the psychotic fantasy he has entered. In one unnerving, brilliant slow motion sequence the driver visits the diner to revel in the last moments of his next target, Ron Perlman's Jewish gangster, his face concealed by a blank rubber mask he uses for stunt driving. That he uses the mask is also wonderfully ironic, in that the expression Ryan Gosling's driver wears for the majority of the film is immovably blank. The face seems but a mask for the driver, who is surely crumbling inside.