Elegant thriller based on James Sallis’s 2005 crime novel concerns an unnamed Hollywood stunt driver who also operates outside the law by driving getaway cars at night. There’s something decidedly 80s about Drive. From the “Purple Rain” font of the titles to the Giorgio Moroder-ish score, this feels like some recently discovered movie from 1983 directed by Adrian Lyne. The retro vibe gives this action thriller an artistic sheen that makes the drama so exciting. Perhaps the plot isn’t quite as profound as the impressive mood would have you believe. But the drama is underscored by a mesmerizing cast.
An almost perfectly realized marriage of style and action. L.A. has rarely seemed so slickly artistic. We get spectacular overhead shots of Downtown Los Angeles. Nokia Plaza has never looked so sleek and cool. This is an L.A. with shiny reflective surfaces, glowing street lamps and neon lights but without the inane chatter. Most of the happenings take place at night and the darkness complements the ethics. Gosling’s driver is morally questionable. His job as a stuntman is supplemented as a wheelman for thieves. These scenes which demonstrate his illegal activities are beautifully shot and surpass any generic action typical of today’s Hollywood product. One noteworthy sequence early on is a heart pounding chase between him and the cops where you root for the “bad guy”. That dichotomy between the legal and the illegal side of his life are what makes his character so fascinating. He means well. Especially when he meets pretty Irene in his building who’s raising a 6 year old son. Carey Mulligan plays her with an enigmatic sweetness. The boy’s father is in jail and Irene flirts tentatively with her neighbor. Clearly there are sparks, but the bond is unspoken.
Drive is highlighted by a refreshing unpredictability. The viewer is compelled to watch because we cannot guess what will develop. Expressions and mood are what conveys the chemistry. It’s intoxicating stuff because the script trusts the intelligence of the audience to understand their desires. Their motivations are rarely spoken. Ryan’s character is particularly silent. He wears a satin jacket with a logo of a golden scorpion, but we know little about him. He’s a doer not a talker. We know that much. He seems to be channeling Steve McQueen, also a man of few words. There are both good and bad things to that kind of an approach. There are times where he’s frustratingly vague. Irene drops the news that her husband Standard Gabriel is getting out of prison in a week and the news is met with a minute of silence and nothing more. Once he’s released there’s an uneasy relationship amongst the two men. Memorably portrayed by Oscar Isaac, Standard is a complicated ex-convict who is a threatening presence at first. Who exactly is this husband of hers? What does the driver think about him? And what will occur between the two men now that he’s back? The anticipation of what will happen next carries the narrative. The interaction between these two is never easy to foretell.
Drive is full of mysteriously complex individuals. Individuals that have that classic charisma reminiscent of the past but in a 21st century setting. We care about these people, but we don’t understand them right off. They don’t always behave in foreseeable ways. Drive is a stunning triumph of minimalism over gaudy extravaganza. Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn keeps the operation simple and lean. It’s a retro thriller with a show don’t tell mentality. The production design is a celebration of retro modernism. But the experience is far from pretty. As the story plays out, the situation (and violence) escalates. By mixing elements of a 60s action movie and the synthpop gloss of the 80s with a modern sensibility, we get something wholly unique for the modern age.