A sleek night landscape. The crescendo of tension in a pulsing neon city. Dry, haggard days. And cars. This is the underworld of Los Angeles as imagined by director Nicolas Winding Refn in his latest film “Drive.” In a dark, gritty homage to the crime cinema of yore, Refn artfully juxtaposes love and duty with grippingly horrific violence and distress, creating a hypnotic and powerful film that sears through the mind long after the credits end.
Ryan Gosling stars as the unnamed “Driver,” a man of few words with an inner penchant for brutality. That propensity explodes in full force when he has to protect a woman and child to whom he has grown close. By day, Gosling’s character works as a mechanic and a stunt car driver for Hollywood action flicks. By night, he drives getaway vehicles contracted by criminals for a variety of heists. His insomniac double life never seems to take a physical toll, only an emotional one—the Driver maintains a Spartan existence bereft of possessions and personal involvements. “I’m yours, no matter what,” he promises the men who hire him—but only for the five-minute window he allows them to pull off their robbery. After that, he is unattached and uninvolved, refusing to even acknowledge a former client he encounters in a bar.
But experiencing what may be the first emotional attachment in his previously solitary and single-minded life, the Driver swears that he will protect Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) from a vengeful group of gangsters who harbor a grudge against her family for the actions of her ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Isaac).
In telling this story, Refn imbues “Drive” with a rich, dark color palette to match its narrative tones. Los Angeles is a dusty and harsh world in daylight, almost stereotypically Western with muted primary colors. But by night, it transforms into a streamlined and futuristic city, where color stands out only from dashboards, headlights, and road signs. A slight overreliance on slow motion also hearkens back to old Westerns, but the technique is adeptly offset by the tense acceleration of the film’s car chases and gruesome murders that increase in frequency as “Drive” progresses.
Just as the violence builds, so too does the hidden, dark undercurrent of the Driver’s personality. At the beginning of the film, he appears shy and soft-spoken, though ruthlessly competent in his ability to handle cars. Yet as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that underneath his taciturn exterior is a veritable monster of a man. The first time he unleashes his anger, he orders an opponent to “Shut your mouth, or I’ll kick your teeth down your throat and shut it for you.” For a character that has barely uttered a complete sentence up to this point, and whose only declaratives, for the most part, have been gentle and truncated, this break in character unleashes the lethal firestorm that makes up the second half of the film.
This thematic split in “Drive”—from relatively ordinary character portrayals to serious and sudden violence—is jarring, but adds to the film’s unpredictability, which is perhaps its greatest and most consistent strength. And while the movie’s character archetypes at first seem one-dimensional, their undeveloped nature keeps the audience constantly in the present. No sepia-toned flashbacks explain how the Driver became so immune to violence that he could unflinchingly smash a man’s brains to pulp with his foot. This lack of justification forces the audience to accept every character’s actions at face value, no matter how hard to stomach these actions may be.
The movie is propelled through its hypnotic lows and screeching highs by an electronic, pulsating soundtrack composed by Cliff Martinez that perfectly infuses tension into every moment, even the seemingly idyllic. In a movie with a serious dearth of dialogue, the true emotion surges through the music, including standout tracks by electro-pop artists Kavinsky and Electric Youth. Irene and the Driver may never really talk about their feelings for each other, but in this movie, the soundtrack often expresses the emotions that the characters can’t—a woman intoning “There’s something inside you, it’s hard to explain / They’re talking about you, boy, but you’re still the same,” makes it clear how Irene actually feels.
All in all, “Drive” is an original, gloriously artistic film whose achievement lies less in its commendable script and acting and more in its gritty and wholly engrossing atmosphere—a triumph of direction, musical composition, and editing. The film’s explicit violence and implicit tension are disconcerting, volatile and gripping, succeeding on a visceral level alongside effective and twisted storytelling. For these reasons alone, “Drive” is not a film to miss—just don’t eat lunch beforehand.
—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at email@example.com.