In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive—which seems already to have become the movie of the year among the ain’t-it-cool fanboy crowd—driving isn’t just a means to an end: it’s a way of life, a philosophy. The film’s stoic, quietly brutal hero (played by Ryan Gosling, excellent as usual) is an archetypal man with no name, known only as “Driver,” for whom his car is like an extension of his body. By day he’s a movie stunt driver; at night, he moonlights as a getaway driver for petty criminals. Over the course of the film, he becomes embroiled in a heist which goes fantastically wrong, attempting to act in the best interests of his lonely neighbor (Carey Mulligan), her shady husband, and their young son. Like the title character from Shane and countless other Westerns, Driver puts others’ emotional needs and safety before his own, eschews personal attachments and avoids romantic ties. His place is not in the home, but on the road. It only takes a meaningful exchange of gazes between Gosling and Mulligan—she’s just borne witness to a particularly grisly act of violence—for us to understand that he’s not suited for the domestic sphere, so to speak. And so it’s appropriate that the end of the film finds him behind the wheel yet again, heading out into the darkness in the tradition of so many loner heroes before him.
The archetypal elements of Drive are important to understand, because it’s not a film that’s interested in playing by the rules of conventional realism. Its characters are well-drawn caricatures rather than complex and dynamic people. The oily, short-tempered mobster played by Albert Brooks is made amusing by Brooks himself, not by the film’s screenplay. Gosling, too, brings an unnerving, ice-cool presence to a character that doesn’t amount to much on paper. And I was saddened that the film’s talented female actors, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks, weren’t given more to do; they’re stuck in nothing parts and have almost no dialogue. (Curiously, the film was written by Hossein Amini, whose previous credits include the excellent 1997 film of The Wings of the Dove. Perhaps the fault lies with Drive’s source, a novel by James Sallis, unread by me.)
But Drive is not a film driven, as it were, by character, or even by plot (what’s here of that is diverting but slight). Rather, it is fundamentally a film about style. Some have commented that Drive is a throwback to 1970s car chase and exploitation films; it more specifically channels the spirit of the 1980s, with its neon pink titles (Refn has confessed a love of John Hughes movies) and synth-pop soundtrack. I think my favorite scene is probably the opening credits sequence, set to Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx’s lush, chill “Nightcall” (listen below), which looks and feels like it could be an early MTV video. The pleasure of Drive lies in its immaculate stylishness and its unflappable cool. That’s not enough to carry an entire film, but it’s something.