Drive (2011, Nicholas Winding Refn)
Nicholas Winding Refn’s most mainstream work comes in the form of 2011’s stylish thriller Drive. Adapted from James Sallis’ 2005 novel, the film was showered in critical appraisal and landed 7th on ‘Impact’s Films of 2011’. The plot follows a Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver-for-hire. He is soon dangerously entangled in LA’s criminal underworld after taking a job from neighbour Irene’s (Carey Mulligan) newly-paroled husband. What ensues is a brutal, fast-paced race to protect Irene, her son, and to tie up loose ends.
Drive’s opening heist scene immediately highlights the film’s major strengths – its cinematography and audio design. Taking stylistic inspiration from classic film-noir cinema such as Bullitt, The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A., Refn infuses a solid, brutal story with artistic flair and immersive personality. Driving sequences are shot in-car and close-up, adding an engaging dimension to the film’s action scenes. Meanwhile, intricate and clever details such as the visible speedometer and the use of neon lighting and colours adds a striking visual richness to Drive. While it seems criminal that the film’s visuals have failed to be recognised by the Oscars, its nomination for ‘Sound Editing’ is fully justified. The use of silence beautifully contrasts with the loud and robust nature of the car chases. From engines revving and tyres screeching to gun-shots and head-stomping, the film’s dynamic and vigorous audio is impressive. Cliff Martinez’s score of synthesised pulses and panoramic tones adds a persistent atmosphere of tension that perfectly corresponds to Drive’s stunning cinematography and punchy sound design. Visuals and audio aside, the film’s narrative is a slick and compelling affair with a fantastic supporting cast, in particular the menacing Albert Brooks, culminating in an intense and gripping final hour.
To be brutally honest, Drive suffers from a lack of substance. After its pulsating start, the film’s first half dramatically slows down to a beautifully shot yet tedious series of interactions between Gosling and the supporting cast, particularly Carey Mulligan. Refn’s intention of portraying the “innocence of love” through a minimalist romance between the two never truly works, coming off shallow and trivial. This isn’t helped by the absence of engaging dialogue, which consequently hurts the film’s performances. Gosling’s lonely, mute character is far too underdeveloped and awkward to pull off the classic notions of cinema’s ‘mysterious protagonist’. Instead he indulges far too heavily on smirks and glares, only becoming animated in the film’s final acts when his rage-induced persona manifests. Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan’s performance is unfortunately hindered by a shortage of direction and material.
Overall, Drive is an intense and engaging piece of modern cinema. Refn manages to take the bare-bones structure of the ‘action-thriller’ genre and injects it with a gorgeous visual style and effective audio composition. While the characters and the narrative are somewhat flawed, the film, funnily enough, still remains one of last year’s best.
A 40 minute Q+A with Director Nicholas Winding Refn is a very interesting look into his directing style, filmography and the behind-the-scene aspects of Drive, but apart from that Icon Home Entertainment’s release is surprisingly lacking in extra features. A commentary track might have been nice, but its the usual affair; trailers, production stills and slideshows.