Drive begins with a neon-lit Los Angeles evening, as a mysterious getaway driver outlines his services to some prospective clients. By day he works in a garage and does stunt driving for the movies, by night he’s part of the L.A. underworld. He gives you five minutes of his time, no more, no less, after that you’re on your own. But into his life comes Irene, a young mother, with her child and her fresh-out-of-prison husband, which changes the driver's perspective on things. Just as soon as he begins to appreciate life and love, the husband’s past intercedes and embroils them all in a million-dollar mistake that isn’t going to have a happy ending.
Ryan Gosling stars as the nameless driver, and delivers a brilliantly disciplined performance. He barely utters a word during the first half of the film, not wasting one iota of energy unless he has to. What has turned this man into a human automaton is never mentioned, and when his rage is unleashed it’s all the more powerful for its purity, because the character simply does what he feels is right. Carey Mulligan is Irene, wife of newly-freed Standard Gabriel and mother to young Benicio. Her delicate elfin beauty is perfect for the part, a young woman whose simple charms draw the attention of the driver; there’s none of the standard Hollywood ‘she’s a free spirit!’ crap. (Her American accent's perfect, too.) As with Gosling, the performance isn’t about what she does, but rather what she doesn’t do. Oscar Isaac does well to give Standard a bit of humanity, lifting him above the average clichéd ex-con.
Bryan Cranston takes a break from his TV duties to play Shannon, the driver’s boss and booker, getting him gigs both legal and illegal. Cranston is great as the crippled, perpetually out-of-luck stooge who’s just trying to catch a break. He’s under the thumb of local crime bosses Nino and Bernie, the latter hoping to make a go of a stock-car racing outfit that Sheldon and the driver have put together. Ron Perlman (another recent TV exile) is all piss and vinegar as Nino, a foul-mouthed gangster who thinks he should be higher up the food chain, and Albert Brooks plays against type as the quietly psychopathic Bernie, who’s capable of blood-chilling barbarism just as easily as the driver. Just don’t ask him to pass the cutlery. Christina Hendricks (yes, she of big-bosomed Mad Men fame) gets a tiny role as Blanche, a double-dealing accomplice. Look out for Russ Tamblyn’s brief appearance as a gangland doctor.
Nicholas Winding Refn’s film, based on James Sallis’ book, carries with it a certain amount of critical baggage; a slew of 5-star accolades and plaudits galore mean that you expect something special when you sit down to watch it, and I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint this reviewer. First of all, it’s not an action-oriented film – no matter what the taglines & trailers might imply – and it unfolds with slow but deliberate pacing. Anyone who’s expecting something fast & furious had best steer clear.
Much has been made of this movie’s debt to filmmakers like Walter Hill and Michael Mann, who’ve previously explored L.A.’s criminal fraternity in similar fashion, but director Refn has said he’d never even seen Hill’s The Driver until after he’d started work on the movie. And while Mann’s ‘80s-period music-video sensibilities have certainly impinged on Drive, his forays into crime usually focus on the duality of the people involved, and the fact that only the thin blue line separates the good from the bad. Drive eschews that dual angle, concentrating only on the crooks and the immediate people around them, finding the goodness within (or not).
The main character is very much the archetypal lone gunslinger – he’s a man with no name, after all – and the movie plays right into that mythology, the driver adhering to his own skewed moral code even if it’s not the smart or sane thing to do. Some small vestige of human warmth is awakened by the relationship he develops with Irene, which is highlighted by a wonderful scene where he drives her and Benicio down the barren L.A. river to find a lush little hollow full of green trees and life and vitality; it’s a sweet (but none too subtle) metaphor for the driver’s state of mind.
Newton Thomas Sigel’s camera work is much like the main performances in the movie, not moving or drawing attention to itself unless absolutely necessary. Shots are held for what like seems an age and cuts are often slow dissolves; all the better to appreciate the nuances of the acting (which is one of the pleasures of revisiting the film). Slow motion is employed several times, one of Refn’s directorial conceits that does consciously attract the viewer’s attention, and for good reason. It usually precedes and/or accompanies a very emotional moment, not letting the viewer shy away from the intensity on-screen. It’s classic hold-and-release filmmaking, Refn first acclimatising you to the measured rhythm of the scene, then hitting you with the climax so that it's just as big a release for the audience as it is for the characters. Refn also has a penchant for intercutting adjacent scenes together, so that we can see the conclusion of a scene while it's still playing out. This may seem tricksy to some viewers but it puts a different spin on the preceding moments, because you're forced to evaluate it while watching what comes next, and so even the tiniest gesture can carry a double meaning.
The moody lighting evokes the neon-soaked L.A. of Mann’s oeuvre and of the ‘80s in general (although the movie is clearly set in modern times). That feeling is cemented by the throbbing soundtrack, incorporating a selection of catchy electro-pop songs and Cliff Martinez’ synth score, which owes more than a debt to the work of Brian Eno. The music complements the film very deftly, always amplifying emotions rather than simply telling us what to feel at any given point (a trap which far too many filmmakers fall into). There is an over-baked ballad that seems a bit incongruous, yet the lyrics point to the awakening of the driver’s innate benevolence. That song accompanies a curious moment late on where the driver wears a stunt mask of the lead actor from the movie he was working on, and although it looks comical there is a deeper meaning; he’s literally assuming the mantle of the hero in his own mind, needing some sort of external confirmation that he is indeed the ‘good guy’. It almost becomes an existential quest for the driver, having found this spark of humanity inside him. He must find out where it takes him, for good or ill.
Drive does leave itself open to accusations of being a case of style over substance, and I can appreciate that viewpoint. The storyline is hardly original, and the glacial pacing & poker-faced performances will either mesmerise you, or leave you cold. And your mileage will also vary as to how much you dig the old-school style of the piece, pilfered from a decade that had such a distinctive vibe it inspires love and loathing in equal measure. (I’m a child of the ‘80s, so I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp.) But at what point are we allowed to appreciate style as substance? The music, lighting, acting et al are all geared towards telling the story, flimsy as it may be, and aren’t just there for the sake of it. If one element is dialled down, another fills in for it, with the simple creak of the driver’s leather gloves holding just as much portent as an ominous music cue or an actor’s steely glare. They all combine to make a film that’s capable of great tenderness and shocking violence, and it doesn’t pander to its crime-movie audience with scattergun pop-culture musings or a ‘twist’ ending. Drive is proud to wear its influences on its shiny satin sleeve whilst retaining its own identity. I like it quite a bit, and I highly recommend that you give it a viewing to make up your own mind.
Drive comes to Blu-ray with a widescreen presentation that preserves the theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 (approx.). The movie was shot digitally, predominantly with the Arri Alexa and finished on a 2K Digital Intermediate. This AVC encode is true to those roots, with the typical modern teal and yellow colour scheme in full effect; darker shades carrying that familiar blue-green tinge, and skin tones looking a touch more orangey than they perhaps would in reality.
The contrast is ramped up pretty high, to the point where white highlights are blown out and start to bloom, although I have no doubt that it’s intentional because it gives the daylight scenes a slightly ethereal quality. Blacks are good and deep, although they can occasionally look a little shallow and are suffused with the aforementioned teal tint.
Detail reproduction is excellent - as I would expect from a recent digital production – with no edge halos whatsoever, and there’s an occasional veil of grain to give the picture a more filmic appearance. It can look overly soft from time to time, but in the absence of any comparisons I can only put that down to another stylistic choice.
What isn’t a stylistic choice, however, are some unsightly artefacts which pop up throughout the film. Drive is full of contrasting shades of light and dark and sometimes a bit of colour banding (posterisation) occurs. There’s one particularly obvious example on Ryan Gosling’s face at the 1hr 29min mark, yet the encode seems to hold together during some trickier sequences than that one, so it could be a source related issue (the Canon 5D used for certain shots may have contributed to that, owing to the increase in colour compression vs. the Alexa). Areas of darkness can swarm with noise, albeit rarely. (There’s also a slight rolling flicker on Gosling’s face during the opening driving sequence but it doesn’t appear in the rest of the film. It’s probably an artefact of the in-car lighting not quite synching with the camera shutter, and so the encode is not to blame here.)
I dare say that most viewers will not notice those issues unless they’re looking for them, but I spotted them easily and found them to be a little off-putting. They undermine what is otherwise a very competent video presentation.
The movie carries a regulation DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack (with a 2.0 PCM stereo alternative). It’s very easy on the ear, with clear speech, pulsing music and suitably crunchy sound effects. The entire sound stage is used very effectively, the rears providing plenty of support, both ambient and directional, and the LFE does a great job, underpinning the action and the music alike with some solid bass. It’s not a spectacular mix, but it is a good one and is presented faultlessly.
We get a very small selection of extras on this disc. This is perhaps surprising for something that generated as much buzz as Drive did upon its theatrical release - then again, it’s not a big studio movie and it didn’t set the box office alight, so expecting a feature-packed version was somewhat naive of me. The trailer and TV spot are the usual forgettable fluff, and the stills gallery is a brief but interesting look at poster/DVD menu concepts. The 40-minute Q&A (shot at the BFI in London) is the saving grace, Refn talking about the film as audience members fire questions at him. The director reveals some insights & funny anecdotes, and it’s a shame that there’s no audio commentary because I’m sure it’d be well worth a listen.
Drive is, according to the director, a modern fairy tale that reveals the evil - and the good - that men do, and it's absolutely drenched in retro cool. The languorous pace, monosyllabic leading man and gory violence means that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I found it to be a riveting piece of cinema.
The visuals are an important part of the experience, and this UK Blu-ray just falls short of greatness. It has its good points, to be sure, but when the compression nasties pop up they take it down a notch. The audio’s great though. The sparse array of extra features doesn’t get under the skin of the film, although the Q&A is worth your time.