Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a meticulously composed, sleekly stylized film. The problem for me is that its style isn’t really to my taste. Knocking a movie is easy when it sports obvious flaws, when it feels awkward or haphazard or just plain stupid, but Drive is none of those things. Every line, every shot, every sound cue and beat feels extraordinarily purposeful. I understand the thinking behind some of the aesthetic choices even when that aesthetic doesn’t appeal to me, which makes assessing it remarkably difficult. Do I respect Drive? Yes, absolutely. Did I enjoy Drive? Well, sometimes. It’s a fascinating, frustrating, bewitching, disquieting work. I’m glad I saw it, and I never want to see it again.
The movie stars Ryan Gosling as an unnamed driver of stunt vehicles by day and getaway cars by night, both gigs arranged by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who owns a garage but dreams of more. As for the driver, he’s a quiet, solitary man who doesn’t seem to dream of much of anything—at least until he falls into a chaste but tender relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan), the beautiful young mother who lives in the apartment next door. When Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), gets out of prison, trouble follows him, and the chivalrous driver offers to help. From there, everything goes wrong in classic noirish fashion.
I think it’s best to state upfront that although that premise might sound like that of a fast-paced, sexy thriller, Drive doesn’t fit that mold. The movie features exactly two big driving scenes (both of them sharp, taut nail-biters, for what it’s worth); far more typical of Drive are the protracted, glowingly lit scenes of romance between the driver and poor lonely Irene and, later, the protracted, shockingly graphic scenes of violence both inflicted on and perpetrated by the driver. Refn paces everything with cool deliberation and films it with an artist’s love of mise-en-scène: oftentimes the characters aren’t so much moving through the world as they are posing for the camera.
And Drive truly is stunning to look at, if a bit too steeped in ’80s style for my tastes. (The use of slow motion and even slower dissolves makes me cringe, and the less said about the synth-heavy soundtrack, the better.) This is a movie better represented by screen shots than clips. The dramatic use of light and shadow is downright painterly, and the recurring super-saturated reds are marvelously evocative.
But Drive isn’t all pretty prettiness on screen. It’s also shockingly violent—and not in a glamorous, Hollywood way but in a joltingly ugly, stomach-churning way. Intellectually, I respect Refn’s apparent refusal to glamorize violence, his commitment to make it horrifying whether the hero or villain is wielding the hammer—I really, truly do respect that—but in practice, it’s excruciatingly hard to watch.
Of course, that is part of the point of the movie: the slow reveal that the driver, though solid behind the wheel, is dangerously unstable in real life. Gosling unstintingly portrays the dark side of the would-be modern-day knight, though the driver remains something of an enigma to the end. At least he has more to work with than poor Mulligan, who has nothing to do but look sad and vulnerable, your classic damsel in distress. The best characters are the criminals played by the more seasoned actors. Cranston is endearingly sympathetic as the striving, well-meaning, but luckless garage owner, and Albert Brooks delivers an astonishingly effective performance as a ruthless local crime boss. (Seriously, I had no idea Brooks had it in him to be so goddamn scary. I’m impressed.)
Worrying overmuch about characterization is probably to miss the point, though. Hossein Amini’s screenplay, an adaptation of the novel by James Sallis, is already exceedingly spare, and Refn boils it down to a somewhat inscrutable, dark-as-midnight modern-day fairy tale. (I do wish they’d cut the bizarre references to the fable of the scorpion and the frog. That story doesn’t apply to the driver’s situation in the slightest, so why the movie references it—and goes so far as to outfit the driver in a hideous satin jacket with an embroidered scorpion on the back—is beyond me.) Drive isn’t a character study; it’s a dazzling exercise in style, putting an art-house sheen on a grindhouse story, with allusions to a whole host of films from the ’70s and ’80s. I have no doubt that Refn and Gosling accomplished exactly what they set out to do, and I congratulate them on it. I might be too turned off by the ’80s revival and the brutal eye injuries to warm to the thing, but I’ll happily admit that Drive is a gorgeous film. I enjoyed it much more than most movies I don’t enjoy.