There’s nothing subtle about Drive, though for followers of Director Nicolas Winding Refn‘s career to this point, subtlety is about the last thing you’d expect to find. Refn is a filmmaker fascinated by intensity, eager to push the limits of graphic violence. Drive is no exception, though in the end it is not the film’s brutality that defines it. Refn’s latest is dripping with style, from the slick opening credits to the closing synthed-out track. It is a film for a generation that often judges a product’s success as much on aesthetics as content, and though this may be one of the sexiest films released in the last decade, it can also be prohibitively aloof.
The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a lesson in stoicism, preferring a hard stare or gentle smile to words. By day he drives on film sets and works in the shop of his only friend, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), by night he drives for thieves, or if there’s no thieving to be done, he simply drives. And then he finds himself falling for his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), despite her husband Standard’s (Oscar Isaac) impending release from jail. He comes home, and is promptly and reluctantly forced to rob a pawn shop with a red-headed vixen named Blanch (Christina Hendricks). The Driver insinuates himself into Standard’s crew, recognizing the threat to Irene and her son. And when the heist goes sour, he finds himself heading towards a pair of elder gangsters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks), and blood is shed.
Anyone that talks about this movie will talk about the soundtrack. It is fantastic and persistently conspicuous, often guiding tone past the point of needing guidance, and layering over scenes to the extent that they can end up looking like music videos. Though built mostly of electro-instrumental mood music by composer Cliff Martinez, the film begins with the Kavinsky track “Nightfall,” announcing the film’s neo-80s ambiance, and more importantly, its definitive focus on panache. Independent of the music, the sound in Drive is precise, often giving viewers ample opportunity to prepare themselves for the dark stuff. Like any good horror movie, we know when the blood is coming.
And be prepared, because blood is coming. Drive builds very slowly, allowing you to settle in comfortably before showing you things you can’t unsee. Refn’s devotion to gore is going to turn off some viewers; certainly it can be horrifyingly graphic and dark, but more than that, it’s simply hard to say what purpose it serves. Gore for gore’s sake is the purview of directors like Eli Roth or Rob Zombie, yet it’s a challenge not to see the violence in Drive as feckless. One could make the argument that showing death in all of its awfulness reminds the audience that it is not simply a storytelling device, but that’s a lesson that belongs in a film like Saving Private Ryan, not a pulpy, stylized, pseudo-love story.
Because the dialogue is so minimal, Gosling’s performance as The Driver is almost entirely visual. Clenched fists and flexing jaws; the character reveals everything with his actions, a choice that just flat-out works. Everybody enjoys a character who can control everything with just his intensity–it’s the premise of Mad Men–and everybody wants to possess that level of power. Refn has taken that excitement that is so universal, and given us a character that embodies it, but more than that he has given us a character also capable of real brutality. We are firmly in The Driver’s corner for much of the film, but the character is enigmatic, even at times recalling a handsomer, more cheerful Travis Bickle. When he breaks, when he commits atrocious acts, whatever the cause may be, it suddenly becomes a good deal more complicated to cheer for him. Though his intentions are always good, his actions are decidedly not, a paradox that evokes heroes of Noir.
The question that must be asked at the film’s conclusion is, “What’s the maximum amount of style that can save a film lacking in substance?” To be clear, Drive tells a decent story, and it does so with characters you care about, but the story is hardly deeper than a man without limits and a mission that will probably kill him. Fun, certainly, but is it more than that? Like any good piece of modern art, ten different people will answer this question in ten different ways, and nobody will be wrong. For my part, style surpassing substance isn’t a crime, and can result in a hell of a cool film, but it’s also not a recipe for a Best Picture winner. Which is really all that matters, right?