‘Drive’ Works Because of Its Self-Conscious Artifice

“I used to produce movies in the eighties” says gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), “kind of like action films. Sexy stuff. One critic called them European,” he continues, before adding “I thought they were shit.” This scene sums up the essence of Drive: a polarizing work of postmodernist art that elates some for its obsession with style and irks others precisely because it forgoes traditional “storytelling” in favor of self-indulgent aesthetics and characters that never fully click as completely “human”.

The truth is that Drive works best because of its self-conscious attempt to highlight artifice. From its title credits, which use the cheesy Mistral typeface (and in hot pink nonetheless!) to list the cast and crew, the film announces itself as a throwback to a Los Angeles envisioned by Michael Mann and David Lynch. A stucco and glass quasi-labyrinth where the lowlifes, working class immigrants and ex-cons mingle next to movie stars. Where the line between studio heads and mobsters is thinly disguised. A place perhaps, in need of a hero.

Enter the Driver (Ryan Gosling) a mysterious man who seems to have appeared out of nowhere. He keeps to himself, never speaks more than he needs to and has three jobs: during the day he works as a mechanic in a garage owned by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), he also serves as a stunt double in movies and by night he’s a getaway driver. For the latter, the Driver has established simple rules: he works based on his perception of what is right or wrong. His entire worldview is determined by this simple philosophy. His moral code resembles that of iconic figures out of pulpy novels and Westerns, which turns him into an archetype: a man we can admire and lust after, without achieving anything that resembles empathy.

Our perception of the Driver shifts when he meets his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) a young woman taking care of her son (Kaden Leos) while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) serves a prison sentence. Moved by her fragility, the Driver becomes Irene’s protector and In truly dreamlike sequences we see what resembles a courtship. We’re unsure if theirs is a romance sparked by anything other than their victim/savior dynamic because director Nicolas Winding Refn makes them almost impenetrable in their shell.

A heist-gone-wrong turns their lives upside down, forcing the Driver to protect Irene from Bernie Rose (the sort of evil figure we assume who “controls the town”) and engage in the kind of showdown usually reserved for characters played by Clint Eastwood or Robert Mitchum. The characters in Drive become blank slates where we can project our biggest fears and illusions. At some point in our lives we all want to be saved or we want to be saviors, but the film goes beyond the mere fulfillment of a comic book arc (even if its edited to feel like we’re watching panels) and achieves utmost sublimity when we least expect it.

Refn is an extremely visual director who, in collaboration with DP Newton Thomas Sigel, makes the most out of every single frame. He inserts just the amount information on each frame to make them aid in the plot’s economy, while providing the audience with aesthetically pleasing tableaux, don’t think neo-nor, think neon-noir. Since the movie relies so much on references, there are moments that tap into a pop culture collective subconscious; reminders of movies like The Driver, The French Connection and Miami Vice.

The score, by Cliff Martinez, is a sensually sterile combination of synthesisers and aural tricks that provide a haunting accompaniment. Since the Driver is also a fan of synthpop, this gives Refn the chance to display his musical tastes and he does so with the expertise of someone like Tarantino, recurring to old songs and new music by indie artists that sound as if they were made in the ’80s.

If the film has nothing “new” to say in terms of plot, Refn creates a fascinating aesthetic essay. Drive is a movie that can certainly be enjoyed on superficial terms but within its almost erotic cadences you find that the entire film relies completely on paradoxes. Having the puppy-eyed Gosling play a macho figure for example, puts in conflict the public perception that he’s a sweet guy you’d want to introduce to your mom. In Drive as he sports a, sure to be iconic, jacket with a golden scorpion patch, he taps into a rawness that’s both alluring and frightening. The Driver speaks little but when he does, he sends chills through your spine. In his moral code he has left no room for anything that’s not extreme.

In the same way Refn has Brooks, a true comedic genius, play a dark figure who has no regard for compassion. Each of his acts is crueler than the previous one, forcing us to giggle nervously, awaiting a punchline that never arrives. We understand that Refn saw things in these actors that nobody had seen before and he makes them work because he subverts them under specific parameters which avoid Drive from ever falling into camp or self-parody.

Perhaps the clearest way in which Refn plays with our perception of genre and art is by crafting one of the most inventive movies of the last decade, using resources that once were thought to be shallow and ridiculous. Are we in on the joke or is Refn actually poking fun of the way in which our culture so easily digests nostalgia to fight our imminent end? Why does Drive feel so brilliant today when it probably would’ve been dismissed in the ’80s?

Refn has already said that he’s planning an improved edition of Drive on Blu-ray, loaded with extras and even perhaps a different cut. These news make this release feel like a tease but don’t diminish its worth. The movie looks spectacular, the clarity of DVD giving it new life and highlighting the cinematography, see for example how the DP recurs to reflections and reflective surfaces to shine new light on situations we’d otherwise judged too harshly. The film’s sound mix is exquisite (you’ll probably rush out to buy the soundtrack after the movie’s over), and the DVD has just enough clarity and oomph to enhance the movie’s mood.

Bonus supplements include short featurettes in which the cast and crew talk about the production. In I Drive the writer talks about the movie’s “Biblical simplicity” revealing shades that may ‘click’ for those trying to find a deeper meaning. Driver and Irene deals with Carey Mulligan’s beautifully understated performance and Cut to the Chase is a great feature that deals with the movie’s complicated action sequences.

Best of all is a 30 minute interview with the complex Refn, who is a true character. Talking about how he doesn’t even drive a car isn’t only funny and ironic, it also highlights his genius as a “fetish filmmaker”.

RATING 10 / 10