“I give you a five minute window. Within those five minutes, I’m yours. Anything happens one minute either side, you’re on your own.”
Tearing out of Cannes with a Best Director award for Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Bronson), this beautifully elegant and viciously violent slice of LA neo-noir is the kind of film Michael Mann dreams of making. From the opening shot; a slow, circular pan that takes in the nameless Driver (Ryan Gosling), staring out over the Los Angeles skyline in his soon-to-be-iconic Scorpion jacket, as he explains his rules of engagement to clients on his cellphone, Refn asserts immediate directorial control, economically establishing mood, character and narrative set-up through a masterful implementation of formal technique, most notably his exceptional use of light and sound. Moments later we take the passenger seat in Driver’s Chevy Impala (“the most powerful car in the State of California”), on a job as wheelman-for-hire, neon light pulsing through the windscreen, alternately illuminating his inscrutable face and plunging it back into shadow. Two men in balaclavas enter the car and we move towards our destination, a warehouse in central LA. Tension ratchets expertly as approaching police cars are heard on the radio, Driver counting down the allotted five minutes on the Rolex affixed to the wheel, scanning the streets ahead for a way out. Time seems to slow down. Then suddenly it’s all over, and we’re back on the move, cops in pursuit through the labyrinthine backstreets of LA.
We’re in prime genre territory here, but for every familiar echo which reverberates, a brand new note is sounded and Refn doesn’t miss a beat. His hero is a man of few words, as perfectly tuned for the work at hand as the GTO on which he’s working as a mechanic or flipping over as a movie stunt-man. His gestures rarely amount to more than a gear change, each one executed with samurai efficiency, his sting as fast and sharp as the scorpion emblazoned across his back. It’s like he’s just silently glided out of a Walter Hill picture into the LA night, underscored by the strains of pitch perfect synth-pop, arguably the best accompanying soundtrack in recent memory.
It’s only when he meets neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son that his focussed façade of indifference begins to crack, a brief sun-dappled sojourn into romantic courtship shattered with the release of her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) from prison. Indebted to the mob for protection money whilst inside, Driver’s need to protect Irene leads him to help Standard pull off a quick job to pay off his debts, setting off a chain of double-crosses that sends us spiralling back into darkness.
Whilst the cast in its entireity is presented as variations on genre archetypes, each is imbued with a deep sense of character, penetrating deeper than their allotted roles in the no-nonsense narrative. Whether it be Ron Perlman's Nino, a local mobster with identity issues or enigmatic producer/gangster Bernie (Albert Brooks, on magnificent form), each are given space to express more than the sum of their genre parts, revealing complexities often through the merest glance or gesture. Despite being lean and efficient, Refn gives Drive more than enough room to breathe, allowing Driver and Irene's relationship to develop as much through flickers of eye contact as the minimal dialogue on their early dates, a drive through the storm drains and riverside retreat especially, recalling the quieter moments that settle amidst the narrative in Peckinpah's westerns.
Refn makes astonishing use of temporal and spatial paramaters, seemingly expanding and contracting time to ramp up tension. This isn't a kind of cheap approximation that someone like Zack Snyder mistakes for style, but a meticulous control over sound design and injections of energy that puncture the frame out of nowhere. As Driver waits outside the pawn shop that Standard intends to rob, Refn cuts the sound, alternately introducing the purr of the engine and the tick of a watch as an entire audience collectively holds its breath, time simultaneously passing and standing still. The moments of visceral violence are brutal punctuations, as quick and fierce as a shark attack, their full force felt as much as a result of the preceding menacing beats that signal their inevitability as the reflective hold after the event, a stillness in which to recover from the impact. Nothing is throwaway or gratuitous, every hammer blow feeling exactly that.
As much as Refn proves himself a master executor of style and form throughout Drive, there are moments here which quite simply transcend everything that came before. For the past two months, I've had images from Terrence Malick's wonderful Tree of Life burnt onto my retina, but nothing could prepare me for a scene of such astonishing beauty and ferocity as Driver and Irene's kiss here, in an elevator, bathed in a golden glow of light, music swelling to crescendo before cutting out and... Just, wow...
The visual and genre landscapes of Drive may be familiar, but Refn pulls together his multiple influences to create something entirely fresh and new, in Driver creating a hero (framed at times like a superhero, staring across the skyline at the edge of a building), an avenging angel for the ages. This director has always shown a degree of flair, but with this film he's proven himself more than deserving of his Cannes prize, delivering perhaps the best film of the year, one I need to see again. Right now.
Drive – 2011 – USA – 100 mins – Dir : Nicolas Winding Refn
Drive goes on general release from 23rd September