Few directors have been able to straddle art-house and exploitation as ably as Nicolas Winding Refn. He was raised on the French nouvelle vague, but was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. His films are often rooted in generic convention but are lofty in their ambitions and adventurous in their approach to characters. With Drive he has cemented his status as one of Europe's coolest directors, mixing art-house and neo-noir to create a future classic.
For fans of exploitation and genre filmmaking, it doesn't take long to see that Drive comes from very familiar stock. It is at its most basic level a B-movie, a pulpy thriller with a classic heist-gone-wrong plotline and a series of dark criminal dealings. There are clear through-lines with Taxi Driver and the films of Paul Schrader, with their protagonist as God's lonely man surrounding by a world filled with corruption and hopelessness. And in its more thoughtful moments, the film resembles existential thrillers like Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger, or Anton Corbijn's The American.
The first real success of Drive is its acceptance of its B-movie origins, and its use of said acceptance as the foundation for something a lot less ordinary. Had its story been handled by Quentin Tarantino, the film would have thrust its references down our throats in the midst of unlikeable, unbelievable characters - we would, in essence, have ended up with Death Proof 2. Tarantino's recent efforts have attempted to embrace or ride on the back of exploitation cinema while not obeying any of exploitation's rules about brevity and self-awareness. But Refn is more honest about his background: he has no problem with applying its principles, giving us a film that feels well-oiled and efficient.
The only common ground that Drive has with Tarantino is its combination of highly stylised visuals and brutal violence. If you wanted to be pithy you could describe it as a simpler, more streamlined Pulp Fiction, albeit with only one storyline. The violence in both films often erupts from nowhere, and neither Refn nor Quentin pull any punches. The scene where Ryan Gosling's character beats up a man in the lift is akin to the scene in Gasper Noe's Irreversible where Albert Dupontnel beats an anonymous gangster to death with a fire extinguisher. The film earns its 18 certificate for this scene alone, not to mention the sight of Mad Men's Christina Hendricks being shot to pieces.
While Tarantino described Pulp Fiction as a tangential look at the various clichés and story arcs of the pulp genre - for instance, what do hit-men do between jobs - Refn has likened Drive to a Grimm's fairy tale. He envisioned The Driver as a modern-day knight in shining armour, roaming the land saving damsels in distress and defending what he believes is right by whatever means are necessary. He cannot commit to relationships because his life's calling leads to him being frequently put in danger and thereby risking harm to others.
But while the mediaeval knights, in fairy tales at least, were seemingly pure of heart and noble in intentions, The Driver's moral compass is a bit more complex and askew. While he desires to keep others from peril, he is almost drawn to it, either because he knows no other way of life, or because he is actually psychopathic, and we are lucky that his psychopathy is not driven by harming us. His attachment to cars and the thrill of driving them is borderline symbiotic, and while he is never reckless in his pursuits, you always feel he secretly craves being in danger. Why else would a getaway driver spend his day doing dangerous stunts? It's hardly the most convincing cover story.
When I reviewed A Royal Affair two months ago, I talked about how the central romantic conflict at the film reflected the Arthurian legends, specifically how the fatal affair between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere led to the downfall of both Arthur and his kingdom. While Drive isn't so bold as to suggest that The Driver's attraction to Irene will doom both them and their world to destruction, their relationship is similar in that it shakes their world to its foundations. Irene's devotion to her husband is no longer as strong or unconditional, while The Driver's abstaining from attachment - his chastity, if you like - is brought into question by his strong desire to protect her.
The film is rooted in the great performance of Ryan Gosling - a performance which seems to have single-handedly lifted him out of the indie leagues and onto the Hollywood A-list. Comparisons have been drawn with Clint Eastwood's The Man with No Name or with Steve McQueen, but in fact Gosling's performance is closer to the work of Charles Bronson. Not only is there a vague connection to Death Wish in the later section of the film, but Gosling is far more laconic and brooding even than Eastwood. Put simply, he doesn't need to do or say much to convince us that he isn't warped or threatening in some way, and even when he does speak, it's rarely reassuring.
Gosling is supported by Carey Mulligan, who continues to impress in roles where she seems at odds with the world around here, following on from her performance in Never Let Me Go. Bryan Cranston, best known for playing Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, is completely unrecognisable as Shannon, disappearing behind the scruffy beard and make-up to create a really slippery character. There is also good support from Albert Brooks, playing completely against type, and Ron Perlman, doing anything but. The only performer who is underused is Christina Hendricks: it's such a small and relatively thankless role that you wonder why she was chosen for it.
While the cast are pretty stellar (Gosling in particular), the really memorable aspect of Drive is its aesthetic. It's ultimately a film which is interested as much in the surface as the subtext: it regards the storyline and fairy tale themes or motifs as being every bit as important as the sound of the car's engine, or the colour of the clothes The Driver wears. There is a vaguely Lynchian tone to the proceedings, with the film treading close to the territory of Lost Highway in the paranoia and identity crisis of the central character.
Because the story of Drive is so relatively straightforward (compared to either Lynch or Tarantino), its strength lies in marrying the different aspects of its aesthetic together. The film is shot by Newton Thomas Sigel, best known for his collaborations with Bryan Singer. He gives the film a glossy, 1980s sheen, borrowing the title font from Risky Business and drawing on his work on The Usual Suspects to make even the grimiest detail seem perversely pleasing. Refn's compositions are excellent, particularly during the lift scene and the few incidences of actual driving.
The film also benefits from a superb soundtrack from Cliff Martinez, former drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers who worked with Steven Soderbergh on Traffic and sex, lies and videotape. Not only do the synth pop choices make sense within the context of the film, but the soundtrack is very well-mixed, taking account of the variations in noise emanating from the party and the movements of Refn's camera, for instance as it pans across an empty bench towards a ringing phone. The engines in Drive are a soundtrack unto themselves, with Refn following the lead of Bullitt and the Mad Max trilogy in allowing them to score the driving sequences without the interference of 'real music'.
Drive is a great film which is set to become a classic of this decade. It epitomises everything good about filmmaking in 2011, without falling into many modern traps or feeling ashamed of where it came from. Gosling's central performance combines threat and bravado with undeniable charisma, and the whole product runs like a well-oiled machine. While it's arguably too familiar or generic to be considered a perfect film, it contains everything needed to make it genuinely great.