There’s something cinematically reassuring about smashing a human skull to pieces. Filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Gaspar Noé have revelled in perhaps the ultimate act of human-upon-human violence. With noirish thriller Drive (2011) – starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston – Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn joins this elite club.
At the heart of Drive is Gosling, man of the moment, international heartthrob and future Best Actor Academy Award nominee. Gosling brought the film to Winding Refn (from James Sallis’ original text), and whilst the two of them have tangoed with extraordinary productivity (Gosling will also be seen in Crazy, Stupid, Love. this week and The Ides of March in October), the film bears its lead star’s fingerprints almost as keenly as its director’s. Gosling’s mechanic – simply called ‘Driver’ – moonlights as an extremely punctual getaway driver and is the epitome of the ordinary guy pushed to extraordinary measures. Driver is dark, brooding and gives the impression that he enjoys filling the outlaw shoes that fit him so well.
But what is it that makes Driver tick? In this case, its his damsel in distress Irene (Mulligan) a young, working-class single mother living in Los Angeles whose husband is released from prison, only to be dragged back into a life of crime by his former employers.
Whether Driver and Irene’s relationship works will be down to the individual viewer and how much they buy into their ‘silent but meaningful’ glances. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston’s father figure Shannon, Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks’ femme fatale Blanche and Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman’s local mobster antagonists round off the film’s ensemble cast.
Drive’s pulsating electronica score maps the streets of LA like a musical GPS, adding tension where it’s needed, whilst simultaneously making Gosling appear effortlessly stylish along with his kitsch paraphernalia (a toothpick, leather driving gloves and sliver scorpion-embossed jacket). Winding Refn’s visual style has been labelled as ‘neon-noir’ and just as the film’s obscuring darkness is illuminated by flashes of intense brightness, Drive’s rambling, at times confused narrative is electrified every so often by the kind of intense performance that even the Scorsese-directed Robert De Niro would be proud, courtesy of Gosling.
Drive’s schlocky, hyper-realistic violence and Winding Refn’s undeniable ‘style over substance’ mentality may well put some viewers off, but the film is far more palatable as a showcase for a great emerging talent. Gosling has hit a rich vein of cinematic form, and long may his single-handed resurrection of the Hollywood ‘leading man’ continue.