I recently undertook another journey into the world of neo-noir.

2011’s Drive is a film starring Ryan Gosling as a nameless stunt driver, who by night moonlights as a professional getaway driver. The film was directed by Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn, and also stars Carey Mulligan as love interest Irene, Oscar Issac as her errant husband, plus a host of other character actors into the bargain.

The film contains very little dialogue, and it is yet surprisingly compelling. Initially, the amount of pensive staring that goes on between the characters frustrated me, but as the film went on I began to appreciate it. That’s what life is really like – every so often you’ll be chatting with someone and then just stop to think, or stare wistfully into the eyes of your companion. And what eyes – I’m trying to decide if I like Ryan Gosling as an actor or not, but one thing is certain: in this film in which the protagonist says hardly anything (the banality of most of the things he does say is reminiscent of the dialogue in 2001: A Space Odyssey), Gosling’s face and eyes do a lot of his acting. The audience knows how the Driver feels because Gosling’s face is so expressive. For a main character, the Driver does not actually build much of the plot; the world seems to move around him and he is its anchor.

Benicio, Irene, and the Driver
Benecio, Irene, and the Driver

Gosling is supported by the charming Carey Mulligan, who I remembered (eventually) from a David Tennant episode of Doctor Who (the magnificent “Blink”). A single mother until her husband is released from prison, she meets the Driver in the lift of their apartment building, and over the following few days builds a relationship with him. The Driver takes a shine to her son Benecio (Kaden Leos), and the three of them have an enjoyable time over the course of a week. The film takes a turn for the exciting upon the return of Irene’s husband Standard. He vows to set his life in order and to be there for his family. Far from being jealous of the Driver, Standard decides to employ the services the Driver provides, in order to steal enough money to support and protect his family forever. The rest of the film plays out examining the consequences of this decision.

Refn has created an artwork with Drive. It is not perfect, and drags horribly in places, but no artwork is without criticism. What makes it so appealing is that, as a film, it is great to just watch and drink in the visuals. Refn has stated that he is blind to mid-colours, and so, as a consequence, his films are in very high contrast. This makes for a vibrant watching experience that is almost reminiscent of old Technicolor films. The cinematography is respectable, too. You can see everything and you don’t lose track of the action on-screen, which is important in a plot-driven film like Drive.

Another throwback to Bullitt - a Mustang features heavily in a car chase.
Another throwback to Bullitt – a Mustang features heavily in a car chase.

In many ways, Drive pays respects to many different genres and individual films. Obviously, there are car chases, one of them deeply reminiscent of the famed chase in Bullitt. Indeed, the Driver is similar to Steve McQueen in that film – hard edged, not beyond violence, but also calm and collected. Atmospherically, there is a lot of the 1980s about the production and costume design. The Driver’s trademark scorpion jacket is straight out of any number of ‘80s productions; Miami Vice was the first one that sprang to my mind. The Driver also has nice leather driving gloves as a conceit – I must confess I nearly bought some after I saw the film. Noir as a genre is timeless, and the dark, shadowy nature of the film is purely noir.

With the following it has, this jacket should have been billed as a star.
With the online following it’s attracted, this jacket should have been billed as a star.

Musically, the film matches the other 1980s stylistic touches. Composer Cliff Martinez used electronic synthesisers in the main for the production of the score, and what results is a very atmospheric, ambient, post-modern musical experience that is rarely melodic. It’s an intriguing listen and has qualities similar to Hans Zimmer’s marvellous score for Inception. Bassy, processed and intense during action, restrained and quiet during mellow scenes. There are some pop songs used in the film as well, notably “Nightcall” by Kavinsky, which plays over the opening titles. It’s good driving music, which is, of course, highly appropriate for a film called Drive that’s about driving.


Above: the opening titles.

Drive is certainly an interesting film. It’s slow paced, and yet compelling. Don’t go into it expecting a whole pile of action and car chases, because I did and was surprised when there wasn’t a lot of that. Instead, expect a film that is, in reality, a human drama, about just how small the world really is.

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