Edited By- Sanyam Garg
'Drive' is a rare film that has discovered the concealed road to my heart. It's been less than a year since I first watched it, but this low-budget/independent magnum opus' gorgeous imagery continues to force me into serene ecstasy. It's the most accessible and lucid work in Danish virtuoso, Nicholas Winding Refn's offbeat and divisive filmography. I find myself pilgrimaging to Refn's phantasmagorical take on Los Angeles (and the unhinged crime world beneath it) at least once in a month now, and the film only revitalises me with every rapturous viewing. The way Refn builds an uber-cool crime world simply with a strong lead cast, tonally consistent music, hypnotizing lighting and a standard 80s Hollywood/noir-esque plot, is indeed a film-making lesson in itself, which not only franchise-assembling studios but also pretentious art house filmmakers need to apply for.
'Drive' isn't a plot-driven film at all; neither is it an adrenaline-filled joyride. It's one of those small, 'slow-poison' character studies, that can't exactly set the cash registers ringing due to short attention spans of today's popcorn munching moviegoers. In fact, 'Drive' is at its cinematic best when it 'pulls over' to showcase and overawe you with its glossy, glazed and symbolism-filled eye-candy shots (which is almost every memorable shot in its 1hr 40min runtime). Refn constructs his entire masterwork around 'The Driver' (Ryan Gosling). A nameless, young man moulded into a calculated and nonchalant getaway driver by a life of crime he didn't exactly choose. One who sternly adheres to his fastidious work ethic which defines his character. He's a modern-day version of Clint Eastwood's iconic 'Man with No Name'. The opening hot pursuit perfectly fleshes out his taciturn personality and crackerjack skill-set. He's the kind of person who believes that a minute more or a minute less could sabotage the whole mission. Sigel's camera cleverly puts you in the passenger seat by never leaving the vehicle for the whole chase, as the Driver incredibly evades the fuzz and its choppers while sports commentary plays on the radio and eventually using the very same football game's after-crowd as cover to finish the job. To sum it up, it’s as if your over-competent big brother is showing you how it’s done behind the wheel in a multiplayer virtual reality arcade simulator, as you let him dominate.
Gosling is stone-cold when he's not trying to socialise in the film. The Driver is the introvert community's very own poster boy. He doesn't need to pull off the canonical Spaghetti Western squint to look like a valiant daredevil behind the wheel. What Hollywood's favourite chocolate boy (and mine too *wink*) does best in this, is brood. In his spunky cars and lonely apartment, he broods better and cooler than any of the on-screen incarnations of Batman (which is saying a lot).
During the opening credits sequence (which is graced by an eargasmic retro synth track, Nightcall) and even in the film's final moments, his gaze is firmly fixed on the never-ending road ahead and he ignores the lucent shops, homes and pubs of the city as their neon lights flash across his face one after the other. As the song goes - "There's something inside you, it's hard to explain. They're talking about you, boy, but you're still the same"- I feel the lights are like ‘night calls’ to the Driver, telling him to wake up. The homes and stores are where ordinary life and modern society is actually at. It's like the world is still offering him a second chance to set things right, to live an ordinary life and settle down with a family, but his mind is shrouded by the darkness inside his vehicle. Like all big-hearted movie criminals, he definitely wants out of his occupation but after all the abhorrent things he's probably done to get where he is, he can't look back and certainly not now, and so he continues to do what he does best - DRIVE. Gosling flawlessly emotes all this with his frosty stares and long pauses in the middle of conversations he has with the other characters.
That all changes though when the love interest (Irene, a meek young woman next door played by Carey Mulligan) enters the equation. The colour scheme evolves to give off a warmer and more snuggly vibe, and there's a pleasant shift to more uplifting synth-pop from the previous badass retro music. After a few idyllic encounters and a delightful picnic with Irene and her little son, Benicio, he realises that he's finally in the zone. Everything he could ever ask was now right in front of him. He even lands a job as a circuit racer when his boss (Bryan Cranston. Yes, Walter White's in this) strikes a deal with local money-maker, Bernie (Albert Brooks, in a surprisingly chilly and disturbing turn of character).
The rosy and lovey-dovey romance is however killed before it actually gets going, as The Driver's past returns to haunt him and the ones he loves. A heist goes awry and Irene is on a hit list. So, once again, he descends into the city's infernal abyss to mercilessly eliminate everyone responsible. The tranquillity of his short-lived episode under the sun, never really resurfaces throughout the rest of the film. You don't get to see Gosling's innocent school-boy smiles anymore and the darkness of the new tone seems to slowly and perpetually engulf you. Even you, as the viewer, feel like you've been mugged and clobbered in an alley while your own love is being dragged away from you. Hence, your connect with The Driver only further strengthens, and the sporadic yet chill-inducing violence makes you root for the scarred and hurt hero. In a nerve-racking brothel sequence, the camera moves like it's intimidated by Gosling's towering screen presence. It captures the vehemence of his rage from the henchman 's viewpoint, who happens to be pinned to the floor while Driver holds a hammer to his forehead. The three big execution scenes are all different forms of cinematic excellence. The stakes are small, in the sense that there's no all-consuming portal in the sky spewing out psychotic robots or an evil moustache-twirling mob boss out there seeking world domination, as a result of which, the deaths carry weight and actually stand for something to the protagonist and the film.
Where 'Drive' again truly excels is how it wraps up the Driver's character arc. Refn crafts one of the most masterful and basic shots in cinema; He uses no scenic location, no background characters, no music (well at least for the most part) and most importantly- no dialogue. It's simply a straightforward and veristic close-up of Driver's face , but it's so visually piercing that you feel like you're having a good ol' stare-down with Gosling. A stare-down you couldn't possibly win, even on a second viewing. Eventually the film places the Driver where he was in the beginning. He continues to drive into the night yet again , without heeding to a normal life's gifts laid out all around him except the devil's road ahead. He tells Irene that she was the best thing that ever happened to him, and chooses to move on, distancing himself from her, for there's never really a way out of a world of crime. However, as the electro-pop track plays in the background, you get an inkling of The Driver's slight feeling of accomplishment. 'A pilot on a cold, cold morn'. 155 people or more. All safe and all rescued. From the slowly sinking ship. Water warmer than his head so cool. In that tight bind knew what to do. And you, have proved to be, a real human being. And a real hero'. He leaves, realising that he finally did the right thing for once, even if it made him leave everything he loved, behind.
To conclude, 'Drive' is a meticulously crafted work of ethereal and powerful visual storytelling that can have various interpretations. Despite showcasing brilliant stunt-work and 80's R rated gore, I feel it's a romance first and one that'll gain its 'classic' status in the future. It's criminally under appreciated and isn't talked about much at all. It's also a perfect blend of pop art, crime drama and arthouse and as you can see from the passionate writing, it's my current favourite and probably won't be dethroned anytime soon.