Would it be excessive to describe Drive as action cinema’s punk rock moment?
Yes, probably. But then such bold statements seem necessary to justify adding yet another enthusiastic review to the already sizeable pile that the film’s attracted. And, for that matter, to work out what makes a movie based around fairly unoriginal, unremarkable plotting feel so essential.
If a musical comparison was to be drawn with Drive, odds are it wouldn’t be punk. Given that the film mostly unfolds to the sounds of supercool pulsating electro (a late dip into light opera takes things a bit too far, but it’s the only weak link on the soundtrack), it comes in right on trend with the current eighties revival. And to cement the link further, there’s the clothes, sunglasses, and the lurid pink titles (and even a moment where Gosling’s unnamed protagonist cradles a young child in his manly arms, like the return of the infamous Athena poster). Not to mention the fact that the film, in a way, harks back to the era’s action cinema; its outsider on a bloody mission plot fitting neatly into the grimy wave of revenge flicks that sprung up around First Blood.
But while the music might not be punk, the attitude sure is. Action films over the past decade have, like prog-rock, become ridiculously bloated, over-long, and often boringly waffled on about space, and, like how the luddite simplicity of punk rock acted as a much needed refresher to prog, Drive’s straightforwardness feels like a welcome respite from the excesses of Michael Bay and his imitators. Perhaps the most striking thing about Drive is the sheer amount of spite the film has for Hollywood, and even by extension, in the spirit of Godard’s Le Mepris, the role of Europeans (like director Nicholas Winding Refn) within that system: Albert Brooks’ (oddly eyebrow-less) antagonist Bernie spits out the assessment of the soft-core flicks he used to produce, “Some critics called them European, I thought they were shit”. Bernie’s background in movie production also serves to neatly undermine the dream-like, aspirational nature of the Hollywood-created myth, as in truth, it’s all just product: it’s not a case of William Goldman’s ‘Nobody knows anything’, but rather ‘Nobody gives a shit’. At the risk of getting myself into some rather dodgy territory, perhaps it’s significant that Brooks and the brilliant-as-ever Ron Perlman portray Jewish inductees to the mafia, reflecting the frequent (and racist) observation that the town is run by the Jews.
But where Drive’s attack on Hollywood mores matters most is in its treatment of violence. Wisely, instead of featuring yet another dashing, indestructible hero who commits oddly bloodless mass murder, Drive’s hero is distant, awkward and, with his quickness to violence, possibly mentally ill. To once again run the risk of causing offence, I was convinced that Gosling was playing his character as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum, effortlessly elegant when behind the wheel but otherwise struggling to connect emotionally with the characters, even taking a while to warm to love interest Irene (a perhaps miscast, but still reliably luminous Carey Mulligan) and her young son. In particular his scenes with Christina Hendricks’ Blanche look almost as uncomfortable for him to get through as they are for the audience to watch. While Drive does fall into the usual action movie trap of not knowing what to do with its female characters, they do serve the purpose of making the already sickening violence seem even more uncomfortably real; Blanche’s terrified screams and Irene’s catatonic shock linger in the memory long after the movie ends.
(That’s not to say that Drive always goes for realism over style: at one point Gosling disguises himself with a mask stolen from a film set – which, perhaps intentionally, looks rather like a hairless Tom Cruise – and yet doesn’t think to remove his distinctive, and by now blood-stained, jacket; a particularly violent scene takes place in the dressing room of a strip-club, presumably so the background can be filled with seemingly bored topless women looking on; and Refn does sort of have his cake and eat it by presenting his protagonist as both dangerous oddball and superhero, as highlighted by the relentlessly catchy vocal hook from College’s A Real Hero, but then these touches don’t undermine the film. And they are very cool.)
There’s also the matter of motive. ‘Driver’ might only involve himself because of that classic narrative device ‘love’, but the rest of the characters are fighting for survival. There’s no hint that the sack of cash that acts as the film’s McGuffin will improve anybody’s lives should they manage to get their hands on it: Irene will still remain a downtrodden single mother; Bernie will still continue to operate out of a run-down pizza parlour (complete with greasy-looking photos and blown light bulbs around the menu); Driver wouldn’t really care for it; and his boss Shannon (a grizzled, endearingly pathetic Bryan Cranston) would inevitable blow it.
If all that wasn’t enough in the way of punk attitude, Drive even has it’s own Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show moment with Refn’s sweary BBC Breakfast News appearance. Although his confusion seems fair; it was a bit ludicrous having a discussion about such a painfully violent movie at nine in the morning.
So Drive might be a punk action film, a brutal burst of energy that hopefully will prove something of an inspiration for potential filmmakers in the audience. But even if it isn’t, there are many other things that Drive might be: it might be the most thrilling film of 2011; it might even be the most cutting movie about movies since Mulholland Drive (coincidentally both movies won the Best Director award at Cannes, a decade apart). What it definitely is is a film that’s genuinely adult, in the best sense of the word.