Cannes 2011 Review: Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive

As the films come to a close, patterns tend to emerge. This year, for instance, there has been a definite focus on the cinema of abuse, of nostalgia and on auteur-driven films, but the most engaging and intriguing mini-pattern for me is the cinema of misdirection, i.e. films that suggest they are one thing and ultimately offer something entirely different by their end.

Unlike Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and The Skin I Live In and even to a lesser extent Hara-Kiri, Drive‘s directional swerve is a tonal one, rather than a thematic or material one. What at the outset looks like an indie love story, with background driving sub-plots, swerves wildly onto a more ragged road.

Ryan Gosling (Cannes’ new darling after this and last year’s mesmerizing Blue Valentine) stars as a stunt-driver/mechanic by day, who moonlights as a getaway driver who is as solitary as Leon, and as effortlessly cool and detached as Bullitt. This driver’s world is flipped when he meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan, who looks stunning), and is immediately floored by her (and her son Benicio). Problem is, Irene has an ex-con husband (Standard, played by Oscar Isaac) who they discover has been granted early release, and doesn’t take too kindly to the driver muscling in on his family. When the driver discovers Standard beaten and bloody in the car park, he offers his services to pull off the one last job that will see the ex-criminal able to get out and go straight. Only things aren’t quite that simple, as the film descends into a chaotic, ultra-violent thrill ride, with chicane after chicane of swerves.

And by Albert Brooks’s afro, it’s good!

Initially on watching, the driver seems almost like an amalgam of the superhero type (thanks to his duplicitous existence) and the one man island figure of samurai assassin and vengeance pictures. The superhero analogy falls down a little thanks to the moral detachment the driver clearly shows, but there is definitely something to be said for the other description, though it is far more rewarding to consider him as a character lifted directly out of a Western. As director Nicholas Winding Refn confirms, he is a character entirely defined by what he is able to do, rather than who he is (hence the name, or lack thereof), and in conjunction with his steely persona (a heady mix of Eastwood and McQueen), and the way Refn shoots him, he is best considered an old-fashioned gun-slinger thrust into the modern world.

So, the film meets somewhere between the one-man-army spirit of a Western and the delirious joy of an exploitation actioner (this will become abundantly clear when you get the chance to watch, and I have no interest in spoiling it here), but Winding Refn wouldn’t be as simplistic as that, now would he? Rather than set up a simple Tarantino variant, he begins the film with lingering, artfully composed shots, and establishes a definite indie vibe, as well as introducing a touchingly painted romance between the protagonist and his neighbor. The way those films are shot are far closer to Blue Valentine than they are to Bullitt, but the jarring effect of having that tone side-by-side with the gleefully over-hyped violence and coldness that comes after it is astoundingly effective. Perhaps this pronounced stylistic choice is meant to prioritize the artful emptiness of the story; while it is an engaging series of events, there is little subtextual detail, little characterization, or even dialogue – so are we supposed to merely enjoy the film for its glossy, and then showy surfaces?

Either way I loved it.

Typically, Ryan Gosling  is great in the lead as the unnamed driver, though he has very little to actually do other than be the embodiment of cool. In the opening half, even when he meets Mulligan’s character his speech is conspicuous by its absence, and he says more with looks and minute gestures than an infinite number of lines could possibly hope to. In fact that relationship with Irene is defined almost entirely by lingering glances, fleeting smiles and a tangible chemistry that is obviously as authentic between the actors as it is on-screen for their characters.

In truth, the success of Gosling’s role is due to the way Winding Refn shoots the character. Shot composition is precisely worked to frame the character, and give him an immediately iconic presence on screen (including one brilliant shot that is reminiscent of Bale’s Batman looking out over the Gotham night). When he drives, the camera sits alongside him, spending far more time lovingly focused on his steely face than on the world he is driving through, and the decision to shoot from low in those scenes simply reinforces the manipulated visual gravitas of the scenes.

This is one of the best casts I’ve yet seen in the competition this year, with Gosling and Mulligan being joined by Bryan Cranston (ridiculous to think that only a few years ago he was only known for Malcolm in the Middle), Oscar Isaacs, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, and, best of all, Albert Brooks. Brooks is almost as cool as Gosling in portraying a local gangster who Cranston’s manager type initially attempts to bring in as a financial backer to the racing team he wants the driver to front, and his imposing presence and brilliantly colorful temper are the perfect balance to Gosling. Perlman is his counter-point, an overly-abrasive and downright crass gangster type who answers to no one, but when he does its laced with swears and venom, and it is obvious he has been told to go out and have fun, creating a B-movie gangster who is no more than a composite of all gangster film stereotypes and no less than exceptional to watch.

Almost as present in the film as an actual character, the synth-pop soundtrack is another perfectly employed tool in Drive‘s armory (even if it was ear-splittingly loud where I was sitting in the Salle Debussy), which helps to build up that essential pseudo-nostalgic feel that is so successful for the film’s exploitation agenda, adding a detachment to things that serves the purpose incredibly well. The one problem I had with the soundtrack is the continual use of a song that features the line “Now you are a real hero, and a human being,” which is pretty much as blatant a message for the film as possible, so it undervalues the audience’s experience of the film to a certain extent. Fine use it once, but not over the final scenes where the message seems almost vulgar.

At the end of the day, Drive is a brilliant advert for Winding Refn’s skill as a filmmaker. His cinematography here is beautiful, and he never lets up even when the film takes a turn for more obviously exploitation-like roads. I already want to see it again.

The Upside: It isn’t quite as good as The Artist, but it’s damn near: an exploitation/modern Western mix with brilliantly over-the-top sequences and gleeful abandon in its spirit. Long may Winding Refn rule.

The Downside: The music, while brilliantly chosen, was plainly too loud in the Debussy cinema, and that final song was just too blatant in its message of what we are supposed to take from the film.

Remember to follow me on Twitter for more on-site observations. You can also check out my other filmic writings at

Cannes coverage continues…

Born to the mean streets of Newcastle, England the same year that BMX Bandits was cruelly over-looked for the Best Film Oscar, Simon Gallagher's obsessive love of all things cinema blossomed during that one summer in which he watched Clueless every day for six weeks. This is not a joke. Eventually able to wean himself off that particular dirty habit, and encouraged by the revelation that was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, he then spent many years reviewing films on the underground scene, throwing away thousands of pounds on a Masters Degree in English in the process, before landing feet-first at the doors of British movie site, where you can catch his blend of rapier wit and morbid sardony on a daily basis. Simon is also a hopeless collector of film paraphenalia, and counts his complete Star Wars Mr. Potato Heads collection among his friends.

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