Drive is a gritty neo-noir based on a sparse James Sallis book, which successfully harks back not only to the film noir of the 1940s, but also the existential road movies of the 1970s, such as Walter Hill’s The Driver. But does it live up to either tradition?
Ryan Gosling plays the unnamed Driver, a movie stuntman and occasional getaway driver. He lives a lonely and uncomplicated existence, until he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), a woman who lives down the hall. Her husband is in jail, so Driver keeps her and her young son company. A romance seems to begin until Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) comes home and the two men become embroiled in an increasingly murderous heist.
Drive is a slow, somewhat meditative film with a lot of time spent lingering on Driver’s impassive face. When the car chases come, the pace speeds up, delivering some reasonably exciting action sequences. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, of Pusher and Bronson fame, has adopted the high-speed camerawork of Quentin Tarantino’s turgid Death Proof, such that the camera always keeps up with the chases. There is never a steady shot of the cars flying by – we remain with them the whole time. As a result, Drive is breezy and undemanding entertainment, but unfortunately the film has several flaws.
Most noticeable is the painfully trite and corny romance storyline, which aims at being subtly moving, but ends up being distractingly coy. It is the film’s main weak point and it isn’t helped by Mulligan’s rather servile performance. It seems as if Refn wants to delve more into her character, to make her appear to be more than just a plot device, but has absolutely no idea how to. As a result, the film has several scenes in which Mulligan sits around or looks in a mirror as if watching her doing nothing will somehow create instant understanding and empathy in the audience. Worse, her quiet scenes in front of mirrors haunt the rest of the film’s slow paced sequences. Gosling (not much better) does the same staring-outwards-with-a-brooding-expression stuff as well, and it comes to feel like character shorthand.
The film gets much more violent in its second half as things become more complicated. But in every bloody murder scene, Refn allows the film’s cool veneer to slip and he goes into overdrive, shooting bleeding wounds from all sorts of angles and with several close-ups. Ultimately, the film starts to feel like a cartoon. It’s not that Drive is too violent, it is just that it gets too excited by it’s own violence and loses its cool. One scene involving a fork and another involving an exploding head in slow-motion are so overdone that it looks like a bad Hostel sequel, which is absolutely not the tone that Refn aimed for in the rest of the film. Eventually, it comes to feel that Refn was only being slow paced to begin with because he wasn’t interested about the non-violent scenes.
Drive is a moody and believable film with an almost perfect modern day pulp feel, but it lets itself down by being very lazy with the romance subplot and by being too giddy during its many murder scenes.