Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s career has had a touch of the John Woos about it. The Pusher trilogy and Bleeder are great examples of his crime and melodrama mishmash style, but attempts to migrate his style into English language movies have lacked that certain something.
But, fan patience is rewarded with Drive. A brutal, touching and beguiling LA based crime story, it’s powered by the same style and substance of Michael Mann’s Thief, Walter Hill’s The Driver and Steve McQueen in both Bullitt and The Getaway. Credentials don't come much higher.
Based on a novella by James Sallis, the story is a straightforward double-cross and revenge tale, but it’s Refn’s storytelling style that exhilarates.
Taking time-outs to put Gosling’s nameless Driver on a sweet date with the willowy Irene (Mulligan) and her kid or sharing an awkward dinner with them and Irene’s just-released-from-jail husband (Isaac) pays dividends when the crime stuff takes over.
From Gosling, Refn gets a fearless performance – part maverick good guy (whose silver jacket resembles a superhero costume or suit of armour) and part psycho.
Keeping his dialogue to a minimum, Gosling’s body language does the talking, Driver’s eyes flicking from soulful to steely when double-crossed or peril presents itself. He’s dangerous – the violence, particularly one head-stomping, will lose many viewers – but his rigid code of honour provides dubious comfort by at least pitching him against the right people.
Said people are the various goons that encroach upon the wheelman’s life and loved ones, led by mid-level crime bosses Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman (both brilliant in providing different takes on menacing), and ending up on the receiving ends of hammers, curtain rods and boot heels.
Through her natural charisma and the space provided by Refn to breathe life into her troubled domestic setting, Mulligan’s potentially thankless role emerges as the film’s heart and worth Driver’s dangerous crusade.
Special mention also to Bryan Cranston as Driver’s needy, conniving business partner, fast proving himself one of the best character actors on the scene.
Refn and writer Hossein Amini have Michael Mann’s eye for the details of a professional criminal: Driver’s “5-minute and out” speech to the thieves he whisks away from crime scenes is pure Heat, and an opening post-heist chase, with the police band radio commentary, is a perfect suspense set-piece, as is a later daylight robbery and hotel ambush.
At one point, Brooks’ character mentions he used to be in the movie game, bank rolling violent, sexy 80s action movies. “The critics called them European.”
Drive is European in the best sense of the word, taking the American crime movie and refracting it through a very foreign lens (those looking for another example should check out Le Samourai).
It’s also one of the best films of the year.