Ten years later, ‘I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I do nothing but think of’ Drive, a movie which reminds me why I love movies. I can honestly say, without pause nor puffery, it changed my life.
In 2011, I was 14 years old. I couldn’t use my cinema-going obsession to see the 18-rated Drive on the big screen – something I’ve yet to fulfill as an adult. One of many junctures behind my pathological buzz for the blood-red BBFC certificate.
At the time, Ryan Gosling’s bomber-jacketed, hammer-wielding wheelman was enjoying a Mona Lisa marketing campaign. Enticed by an action-packed trip to the cinema, my parents booked tickets. Their review was unwavering: slow, boring pish. I believe my dad’s exact words were ‘artsy-fartsy’.
A few months later, it arrived in Blockbuster and subsequently, my lap. Upstairs I leaped, in went the DVD. After 100 minutes, I asked with all the teenage, dude-bro arrogance you’d expect: ‘Am I the only one who understands the complexity of this ambitious cinematic masterpiece?’ Today, the teeming love for Drive brings me some sort of peace.
All it took was the opening sequence. ‘There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own. Do you understand?’
To the ‘ticking’ of Johnny Jewel’s score, we watch Driver (Gosling) ferry two armed crooks to a robbery. They’re unimportant. Our eyes are on every move Driver makes: glances at his watch; every tightening of his fists; slight twirls of his toothpick. This isn’t The Transporter, this is a getaway driver with GTA-level knowledge of all the city’s nooks and crannies.
With law enforcement in pursuit, he deftly manouevres traffic and slides into a dark spot. Soon after, he even tails behind a police car with distinctly civilian driving. The thrills here aren’t in a high-octane wanted-level chase; it’s cat and mouse with a high IQ. Logistics over excitement. There’s no yelling, no smug dialogue, no action tropes – he just drives.
All of this, and he has one last trick up his sleeve: a nearby basketball game coming to an end. He pulls into the car park, blending in with the rest of the vehicles, and trio go their separate ways into the night. It’s a movie in and of itself: no fat, no exposition, pure ‘show don’t tell’ filmmaking.
Then there’s the real punch: the synth-shot to the heart of Kavinsky. I may not recall all of my emotions from 2014, but I remember exactly how that needle drop felt; like I’d just woken up from a slumber I never realised. When the pink title font appears on the screen, I still let out a soft ‘aw’ at how immeasurably cool it is.
It introduced a whole genre of music to my playlists: retrowave, synthwave, whatever you like to call it. Basically what plays in your head when you see a VHS cover or a neon arcade banner. No car ride is complete without Nightcall and A Real Hero. In the years since, mainly because of Stranger Things, 80s nostalgia has ramped up – as have Drive‘s fans.
From here, the movie’s true nature unravels. Gosling’s mechanic/stuntman/getaway driver/racer becomes friends with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son (Kaden Leos). However, when her venal husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) comes home from prison, he gets dragged into a larger criminal plot involving Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks).
There’s a passive authority in Gosling’s acting, a mastery of the blank expression which can somehow hold warmth, love, anger, confusion and fear. The film, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn of Pusher and Bronson fame and penned by Hossein Amini from James Sallis’ novel, purposely holds restraint over the spoken word, letting images, sounds, glances and the looks people don’t share do the talking.
For those who can appreciate every sensually-charged smile between Gosling and Mulligan, and any stretch of Driver being particularly taciturn, it’s riveting. But even as someone who adores it, I can see how it may be seen as tedious. It’s tempting to lash out, sneering, ‘You just don’t get it.’ Maybe they don’t, but that’s not necessarily their fault.
Cinemascore, which surveys the public’s reception to a film online, gave Drive a C- upon release, despite rapturous praise from critics’ circles (Refn even won Best Director at Cannes). One Michigan woman sued the distributor, as the film ‘bore very little similarity to a chase, or race action film… having very little driving in the motion picture.’ It’s safe to say, such stupidity hasn’t been successful.
The lawsuit, and some critics, also took issue with the violence. In fairness, it’s extreme extreme, taking a cue from Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible in its now-infamous head-stomping scene (which beautifully contrasts with the kiss preceding it, but I digress). One thug gets impaled with a shower curtain, another guy gets his forearm torn open with a knife.
Without the ultraviolence, Drive doesn’t work. It’s unquestionably an art-house picture, but its roots are in the exploitation genre. Viscera isn’t deployed to entertain, like the layer of comedy in Tarantino’s set-pieces or John Wick‘s gun-fu – they’re built to shock and appall in service of character and visuals, not pleasing the audience.
Just as there’s always been an audience for Grindhouse excess, Drive‘s taste for blood has its place. Only a few years ago, my girlfriend and I went to a backroom screening in a Glasgow pub, filled with punters who usually flood in for Arrow’s back-catalogue.
After watching a man’s head reduced to a squished plum, some audience members let out a small giggle, leaving my partner a bit disturbed – but that didn’t outweigh the overall rapture among us, rendered immobile by a cocktail of dreamy LA visuals à la Michael Mann, synthwave, savagery and, let’s face it, attractive people.
It’s easy to harp on about callbacks to The Driver, Le Samouraï, and Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Sure, Refn’s knowledge of cinema landed well with us critics, but that’s not what’s kept people coming back, either as fans or converts – Drive still feels transcendently fresh.
Look on Twitter and you’ll find constant tweets about the film, from songs to shots. Also, like many fans, I own a Scorpion jacket. If it was more socially acceptable, I’d sport it with a toothpick all the time.
Not to mention it’s aged well: Gosling is a bona fide movie star; Bryan Cranston’s small role as a mechanic illustrates his most loveable quirks; Brooks’ icy, against-type villain still feels like a revolutionary casting decision; Isaac in a nuanced, pre-Star Wars role; and its vibes foresaw an 80s reawakening. Culturally, it’s one of the most significant films of the 2010s.
Artsy-fartsy? Nah, Drive is just art.
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