Driving is boring. It’s so damn boring. Watching characters drive is often one of the most boring and cinematically flat things in movies. It’s rarely exciting. Directors constantly complain about the difficulty of finding energy or something of interest when characters stare off onto a road. Who could actually make such a dull-seeming activity cool, cinematic, and energetic?
Nicolas Winding Refn, that’s who.
Refn’s a director with a voice of his own, something that’s a bit of rarity nowadays. He’s got a specific personality that’s reflected perfectly on-screen. With Valhalla Rising, Bronson, and the Pusher trilogy, the guy has shown a great love for his violent characters. The auteur revels in exploring men of violence, what makes them tick, and their relationship with their surroundings.
The lead in Drive, suitably credited only as Driver, is a lot like Bronson and One-Eye. He’s a man with his own presence, most of his intentions and thought processes are expressed internally, and he isn’t afraid to kick some ass if push comes to shove. Unlike Bronson, though, Driver doesn’t at all represent some form of madness.
In this story that’s filled mostly with bastards, Driver is the most moralistic man among them.
He’s got rules, he’s not out to kill anyone, he’s got manners, he’s loyal, and simply just wants to drive. Driver isn’t entirely a man of violence, but he’s got it in him. When you see the lone hero stomp on a head like a soccer ball, it’s quite clear that this is a guy you’d never want to mess with… but if you’re not out to kill him or exploit him, then you’d get the most loyal of pals.
The character’s biggest conflict is whether he’ll choose a life of violence over the golden girl living next door, Irene, played by Carey Mulligan. Driver is clearly a guy who’s been surrounded by nothing but dirtbags his whole life with the exception of a less-than-perfect fatherly figure, Shannon (played by the excellent Bryan Cranston). So when a girl with true goodness comes into his life, she poses the possibility of a better and happier future.
Driver’s the type of guy that seems like he’s never experienced true happiness. He’s like a watch; constantly ticking and going through the motions. He is all about getting the job done. He’s not in it for the money or for a sense of rebellion, but because he’s damn good at it and loves nothing more than to be behind the wheel.
The role of Drive is so juicy and tough, and Ryan Gosling is unreal in the role. He’s a force to behold. The actor has proven himself as a true talent — most notably in Blue Valentine and Half Nelson — but this is a performance that shows him capable of so much more. It’s a role that requires intimidation, heart, unpredictability, and glares powerful enough to let one know exactly what the character is thinking or feeling. With saying so little, Gosling expresses Driver’s isolation, the feeling of joy he gets from Irene, and the main internal conflict in an incredibly effective manner.
The same goes for the rest of the cast. Every character has their little touches that make them fully realized. Albert Brooks‘s antagonist, Bernie Ross, is a subtle perfectionist. When knives in his set aren’t in perfect order, he fixes them. Ross approaches his mob job the same way; when there’s a loose strand, not even one that’s important, it has to be cut.
As for Mulligan, it’s obvious why Driver would choose her in an instant over the lonely samurai life he’s living. Irene is a dream girl. She’s the symbol of hope in this hellish world our hero, not anti-hero, is placed in. Mulligan brings a warmness to Irene that makes her so appealing and fantastical.
Fantastical is probably the best way to describe what Refn nailed so perfectly in the film. This isn’t the world real, per se. Perhaps it’s because of the rocking 80s soundtrack or the fairy tale archetypes, but the whole atmosphere of the film gives off a slightly unworldly feel. Even with the heightened style, Refn manages to bring that visceral and even emotional rawness he’s known for. When violence breaks out, it breaks out. There’s no punches or kicks pulled, literally. They’re all visually and thematically brutal scenes that make for a perfect contrast to all the moments Driver shares with Irene.
You know when you come out of a movie discussing how great ‘that one scene was’? Well, just about every scene in Drive elicits that response. This is a film full of energy, audacity, one hell of a dark sense of humor, and visual storytelling at its finest. Refn’s first Hollywood outing is a near-perfect movie that — brace yourself for even more major hyperbole — is destined to receive some sort of classic status one day, and for good reason.