Ryan Gosling stands out as the unassuming and unapologetic Driver in what can only be described as true modern classic.
When you love something, it feels as if the whole universe is working in your favour to make it that more worthwhile and pleasurable. It’s a feeling you get from deep within when you have found the one thing that encapsulates you and, as with anything you have strong feelings for, you feel the urge to tell the world and shout it from the top of a mountain (and maybe start a family band). The passion that comes from it causes you to do crazy things, pushing you to your very limits in ways which can be conveyed in innumerable ways, whether that be the love of a car; that special someone; or in this case, a film.
Every once in a while a movie will reach the screen and change the way I think and feel about certain situations. It’s hard to explain, but it’s as if the film has perfectly depicted what I was thinking or it has gone about things the way I would have. I’ll just sit there with a smile on my face, in perfect symmetry, knowing that someone, somewhere gets me. When I first saw Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, I had that same feeling of love (though not in a weird ‘I want to marry it’ kind of way like you’d see on some Channel 4 documentary) and it got my creative juices flowing (again, not being weird). I knew this was a game-changer from the off; the whole film opened me up to another level of cool.
The screen goes black as a slow pulse of music chimes in, before a stern yet composed voice begins to speak: “You give me a time and a place. I give you a five minute window,” – the camera pans around a motel room. A map of Downtown LA rests atop a table with a route inked out – “anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what.” We see the figure of a man emerge from the darkness, our hero the unnamed Driver, as the golden scorpion adorned on the back of his jacket comes delicately into shot. His posture resembles the neon cowboy on the Las Vegas strip; a figure who stands alone in the bright lights of the big city. He’s a man of few words, but when he talks, you listen.
After a short, silent drive he arrives at a garage where he meets Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who does all the talking. The camera follows them across the garage; a fleet of muscle-cars line up, each one meaner than the last. ‘Yes!’, you think, ‘I wonder which cool car he’ll take?’, as they stroll past Chargers and Mustangs, all the while our Driver doesn’t utter a word – not even to acknowledge him. A trained eye will notice Shannon’s limp. Maybe it was all that talking that got him that stagger? And maybe that’s why our guy is cool. He knows what he’s doing, so why say anything? They arrive at the end of the garage where the site of the ‘plain Jane boring’ silver Chevy Impala can’t help but look out of place. “The most popular car in the state of California. No one will be looking at you,” says Shannon with hint of smugness.
That recurring pulse picks up, this time a little more meaningful, as you nod your head both to the beat and in acknowledgement of his choice. It’s a clever option, something that makes the film stand out for me. Sure, he could have taken the big, brash muscle car and attracted a circus of red and blue lights, but where’s the intelligence in that? Our man knows his stuff.
Driver looks over his right shoulder maintaining a solid stare, rolling his toothpick between finger and thumb of his Lord & Taylor driving gloves. He’s a little uneasy. The grooves of his knuckles protrude against leather, as his hand calmly squeezes the wheel of his newly acquired car. One of his passengers is fidgeting in the back. The other has yet to return. The five-minute window for the raid he’s just become an accessory to has shut, and as his foot hits the floor we know it’s time to go. The symphony of the radio, distant police sirens and the timer on his wristwatch all yield to the sound of the engine with ‘300 horses fitted on the inside‘. We find ourselves riding shotgun in a chase that is shot almost exclusively from the interior of the car, where the pulse-like soundtrack and the clatter of the engine amplify the quick turn of events; something which our Driver will become all too familiar with. Refn and Gosling set the tone, but it’s Cliff Martinez’ score that gives this electrifying opening sequence traction.
The opening credits arrive as the pink Malibu-style writing contrasts against the darkness of Ryan Gosling’s shadowy, blank stare. Kavinsky’s Nightcall sets the tone for this introductory segment; an 80s-infused electro pop anthem merging a robo-tronic voice that’s a mix between Jesus and Optimus Prime, and the softly female response of CSS lead Lovefoxxx. The result is something that’s less “do you really want to hurt me” than “do you want me to get this bat and wrap it around your head until you lie there bleeding under the neon gaze of the lights”. It goes without saying that the playlist to one of 2011’s coolest cinematic releases would be an entirely different experience without Martinez’ chilly, stylish score and the sexy synth-pop set-pieces.
What makes the film stand out from other cult classics is the ultra-cool soundtrack, which is the focal point in creating a retro yet futuristic sound that develops the isolated and lonely feeling that is at the centre of the movie. A Real Hero, which is performed by College and Electric Youth, serves as an emotional jolt at a crucial point in the movie, filling in the emotions that Ryan Gosling’s character can’t, or won’t seem to utter. When I’ve watched films in the past, (and believe me, I’ve done this) I think of what songs would fit perfectly with the tone of the film. But with Drive, I didn’t feel the need to; it had already been perfected by Martinez. Every song and rhythm feels like it was carefully selected for the moment.
The result is a sound that coolly ripples and shifts, hinting at quiet violence and unresolved tensions as much as polished chrome, tinted glass and Ryan Gosling’s unforgettably awesome scorpion-emblazoned jacket. Each song feels like it has an attachment to Driver and when he falls for the beautiful Irene (Carey Mulligan), Desire’s gleaming Under Your Spell with the lyrics “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I do nothing but think of you” have a strong emotive sense that sums up just how he is feeling, but can never express. He has to keep his cool.
Strung against the neon backdrop of LA, Driver’s transformation from anti-hero to avenging angel of death powers a film that delivers a broadside to your core that flings you out of the comfort of your armchair and into the centre of the action that escalates, both gradually and inexplicably, from quiet romance to ecstatic violence. Gosling plays the main protagonist; a loner stunt-driver whose only remedy is cruising the flood-lit streets in his muscle car, while listening to a medley of electro. All you can do is hang on for sweet life as the ride is relentless.
Driver’s story is buried somewhere we know very little about. He is a man without a past who exists only in this time and place. Dressed in denim and driving gloves, he evokes a young Steve McQueen, who was the original king of cool, making the streets of San Francisco his playground in his 1968 Ford Mustang GT. Gosling has had a career which shows his intelligence as an actor, crafting a figure who does not go for the biggest pay check, rather roles which define him as one of the best actors of his generation. As his peers scooped up roles in comic-book blockbusters or banked franchise pay-cheques, he worked when he felt there was a script worthy of him, in resolutely small films, refusing to be tempted by the big studios.
If indie films like Half Nelson helped make his career, then Drive has made Gosling a star. He breathes life into a performance that relies on a physicality and presence which he’s only hinted at before. Driver’s few spoken lines are yanked reluctantly from his mouth, and emerge at a soft-spoken pitch. But if that voice and those cartoon eyes suggest some inner vulnerability, it’s a fantasy soon put to rest.
The point at which director Refn stamps on the accelerator is around the same time Driver begins to lose his traction. When he falls for his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), he dares to imagine a different kind of life, until her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison. Up to his neck in bad debts, Standard finds himself on the wrong side of a serious beating in front of his young son (the first sign that this film is not what it seems) who in turn asks Driver for help. He now finds himself acting as the wheelman on a classic heist-gone-wrong.
The aftermath of this event pulls our hero into the world of low-rent gangster and one-time movie producer Bernie, played by Albert Brooks, (who also happened to be the voice of Nemo’s dad in Finding Nemo!) along with his partner Nino (Ron Perlman – I guess you could say he was Finding Nino) who happens to be in some serious shit with the East Coast mob. When Bernie brings the fight to Driver’s door, he responds with a level of violence that would feel right at home in a horror movie. Such is his ferocity at thought of losing what he loves, Drive suddenly shifts from slow-burner into high-octane revenge thriller.
That shift is summed up in the film’s most memorable scene – a stunning collision of love and violence that only a master maniac like Refn could pull off. In an elevator, confronted by one of Nino’s henchmen and with Irene about to leave him forever, Driver kisses her before turning on the other man. It’s a moment of exquisite and contradictory emotions – love, sorrow, vengeance and rage – combined with startling ferocity. We go through the few levels of his emotions, as for the first time in the film he shows the extent of his passion for Irene. It is Driver’s last chance at redemption before both he and the film reveal their true nature – a nature that is as violent and unpredictable as the high-speed chase in the start of the film.
Drive is a metaphor for the way Ryan Gosling’s nameless Driver has found his passion, as he too has something to shout about in the shape of Irene. You feel for the first time that he has some meaning in his life to do something special, except this time the universe is not in his favour. “I don’t have wheels on my car… it’s one thing you should know about me.” The line is delivered so subtly by Gosling that you don’t quite take in the message behind it, you just focus on his glare as his eyes don’t leave Carey Mulligan’s. This sums up the nameless Driver perfectly; he’s a little reckless, but it’s OK because he can fix it.