Adapted from James Sallis’ 2005 novel of the same name, Refn’s film takes up the story of a Hollywood wheel-man for hire – simply known as Driver (Gosling) – stunt driving for movie productions by day, and steering getaway vehicles for armed heists by night. After an ill-fated stick-up job spins unpredictably out of control, Driver finds himself a target for some of LA’s most dangerous men, including mob boss Bernard Rose (Brooks) and his psychotic attack dog Nino (Ron Perlman). The only way Driver can keep himself, next door neighbour Irene (Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) alive is to do what he does best – drive.
After making a name for himself back in his native Denmark with the Pusher series (Luis Prieto’s English language remake of the first entry – starring model Agyness Deyn – is due to be released this year), Winding Refn increased his profile with the Tom Hardy-lead Bronson (2008) and 2009 viking drama Valhalla Rising before taking up the hot seat on Drive at the request of Gosling.
The director’s aesthetics-driven approach is clear for all to see, with a frenetic, heart-pounding opening ten minutes providing some of the finest moments in the film as our quiet protagonist weaves his way across the streets of LA avoiding patrol cars and helicopter searchlights. Drive’s key turning point comes when Driver meets Irene, a struggling local waitress trying to support her child whilst her newly released ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) struggles to overcome his criminal past. Yet it’s also at this point where Drive begins to lose its edge, with Winding Refn orchestrating a number of painfully long, wordless pauses between the two lonely neighbours, both too shy to express anything more than the odd wilted smile.
Perhaps sensing this dramatic shift in pace, Winding Refn puts his foot to the floor in the film’s final third with an orgy of OTT, gaudy violence as Driver takes his revenge on those who have dared to cross him. As demonstrated by his somewhat underwhelming central role in George Clooney political drama The Ides of March, Gosling still fails to convince as a leading man, seemingly stuck in between the gears of muted boy-next-door and psychopathic killer. Our initially interesting protagonist is diluted further into a stunted archetype through Refn’s clumsy iconography (Driver’s silver jacket heavily signposts the character as a modern day ‘knight in shining armour’), grating mock-80s soundtrack (A Real Hero) and – in a departure from Sallis’ text – a complete lack of back story.
Drive remains a perplexing and ultimately frustrating work – far from the film of the year candidate that some heralded it as towards the end of 2011, yet a piece that undeniably stays with you after the final credits for better or worse. Despite picking up the Best Director Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, one can’t help but feel Refn’s best work may lie ahead – the flashes of genius are there for all to see, but are too few and far between to shunt Drive beyond its cult film moniker.