It seems to be the case nowadays that film audiences, particularly at this time of year as the summer winds down, are left with a choice of seeing the latest broad appeal movies filling the multiplexes, or venturing to the local independent cinema in search of more intellectual fare. Very rarely will a film transcend these boundaries and offer a mix of Hollywood-style action and art-house flair, which is what makes Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive so unique and something to be celebrated.
Drive tells the story of an unnamed stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) moonlighting as a getaway driver for a crime syndicate run by Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks). Seemingly a loner, the driver becomes involved in the life of his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). After agreeing to drive for Irene's newly paroled husband Standard (Oscar Isaac), and finding himself on the wrong side of assassination contract, the driver embarks on a mission to protect Irene from the vicious gangsters who would seek to harm her to get at him. It's a well-worn plot line which in the hands of someone less adept than Refn would likely be nothing more than a forgettable thriller, yet the massively talented director, who picked up the Best Director prize at Cannes this year for Drive, crafts an engaging and thrilling throwback film elevated by masterful performances across the board.
Refn, previously known for the fantastic Bronson, and the lesser known but equally excellent Pusher trilogy, is a man who has very clearly studied his Kubrick. Certainly most modern directors could do worse than imitate the style of one of history's greats like Stanley Kubrick, but rarely does one pull it off with the skill of Refn. In Bronson, the influence was a little more obvious, with the resulting film seeming like something of a spiritual successor to A Clockwork Orange. With Drive however, the traces are a little more subtle, visible in the impeccable technical touches, and the use of dissolves, pensive long takes, and slow zooms, a hallmark of Kubrick's catalogue. Drive is a flawlessly crafted film, filled with beautiful imagery of the Los Angeles underworld seen more often in the work of Michael Mann.
The technical achievements of Drive are more than matched by the acting of the entire cast, and Refn shrewdly selects a wide variety of performers to populate the story. Top notch support comes from Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, the ever dependable Ron Perlman, and particularly Brooks, who jettisons his familiar comedic persona in a truly frightening and villainous performance, which will surely be on the radar of voters come awards season. Mulligan shows characteristic heart in a largely overlooked role, yet the film unquestionably belongs to Gosling. Often heralded as one of the finest actors of his generation, in Drive Gosling delivers his best work yet as the driver; a quiet role that is all the more effective due to the subtlety of the performance. He displays an ability to ratchet up the tension using just the slightest widening of his eyes and tensing of his jawline, and when the character is pushed to act more forcefully, Gosling transitions from almost silent observer to brutal aggressor so swiftly that it leaves one breathless. It's work that he makes look easy, yet it's the most focused performance seen in an action film in quite some time.
There's something undeniably retro about Drive, with its neon opening titles and 80s infused soundtrack, but the film seems remarkably fresh. Smart action filmmaking is so hard to come by these days, so Drive delivers refreshing variety, beginning the time of year when the so-called prestige pictures are released with a bang.