Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a brilliant piece of escapist cinema, one loaded with potentially multiple ways in which to interpret it as attested to the range of appreciation it's getting. I've read many reviews by people that love the film and many reviews by people that don't. For those that don't like it, many complaints are that is borrows too heavily from the films of Michael Mann and Jean-Pierre Melville. I grant that on the surface the film seems highly reliant on plot that comes from other films: Melville's, Mann's, Friedkin's etc. But there's so much more than that here. For me, Drive played as a combination of the souped-up masculine aesthetic coupled with overtly pulp melodrama. But he doesn't stop there, as Refn also throws in Christ-figure references and a superhero pastiche all to a magnificent end. Ryan Gosling plays a man who is a hired getaway driver by night, and a stunt driver during the day. He becomes attracted to his apartment neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) who is living alone with her young son. Soon, the bloom of love is thwarted when Irene's husband gets out of prison. The Driver decides to help her husband get out of some debts by being his driver in a heist. The rest of the film is a wild and memorable ride through L.A.
Before I get into my analysis of the film, I must make mention of the wonderful soundtrack, which contains some brilliant composed pieces from Cliff Martinez, all synth and grind, giving the film its background propulsion. There are also several other dream-pop tracks in the film, adding emotion to the proceedings, like "A Real Hero" by College and "Under Your Spell" by Desire. We must also make special mention of Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose, the head gangster of the film. Brooks gives a terrifying performance as this deadly killer and is absolutely brilliant. It's hard to believe it's the same guy who was in Broadcast News (1987). Although Carey Mulligan isn't given a large part in the film, I always enjoy her in any movie she's in.
There are a few clear delineations that make Refn's film his own, rather than purely derivative. One is the fact that he makes the hyper-masculine myth into a more emotional expression. Thus, Refn and Gosling have put the emotion back into neo-noir. I'm calling this emo-noir. One can sense the heart behind Gosling's eyes. He's not a nihilistic, vengeful man. He's a man with deep-set pain beneath the surface, with the super-cool veneer only covering up his yearnings for love and redemption. Yes, Gosling maintains a heightened look of the iconic "man with no name", oozing style. But unlike McQueen, Eastwood, and Delon, he is asked to be a far more sensitive actor. Simmering just beneath the surface is a man with a soft spot for his apartment neighbor and her son. He's quicker to smile than those other "cool" guys too. He's emotive not because of what he says, but for what he does, displaying a caring attitude and gentleness toward this woman and her boy. He's a literal knight in shining armor with his shiny, silver jacket and scorpion symbol on his back, like some courageous superhero. His sense of self-sacrifice, without any real promise of return from anyone is also near Biblical in its references. He could care less about the money at his disposal and is only interested in the safety of those he cares for, willing to risk his life for them.
Another important difference between Melville's or Mann's world, is there is an embracing of the cheese factor. In Jean-Pierre Melville's late career films, the actors are so zen-like that there is not a shred of weakness or insincerity and the same goes for Mann's films. Refn approaches things differently. Drive does not take itself so seriously! In interviews, Refn has, believe it or not, mentioned that he was influenced by Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty Woman (1990), and the gay films of Kenneth Anger. Either he's joking, or he's crazy! I think I believe him because Drive is unselfconciously over-the-top. This is Melvillian neo-noir filtered through melodrama, specifically Sirk's/Fassbinder's emotional and highly stylized cinematic world of buried desires and color cues. Thus Refn creates a pulp-fiction all his own. Somehow the film avoids pretension because there is no sense of realism. This is pure fantasy world, loaded with dream-pop music, an unabashed love story, comic-book violence, and a near homoerotic fixation on masculine style. This is not a reserved film, or one shy of wearing it's heart on it's sleeve. Refn has confidently pushed many styles and influences together to create a wholly beautiful and glorious cinematic experience.
P.S. As a note on the extreme violence which punctuates the proceedings, especially in the second half, yes the film contains some brutal and gory scenes. But if you've seen the film, you will recall that there are also two key kill scenes that are quite restrained in their approach near the end of the film, where Refn could've been far more exploitative. I'm not trying to make excuses for the violence, it's just that I don't feel this film fits the definition of gratuitous. It feels like there is a point to the violence.