Cannes (Official Selection) – Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn team up a tale of burning rubber in the LA underworld. Paul Martin tags along for the ride.
The recent movies of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn have seen numerous critics (primarily those operating in the digital realm) rushing to induct him into that cherished filmmaking corps of theirs which we, for the purposes of this review, might loosely refer to as the White Male Supremacists (hereafter referred to as the WMSs). In Winding Refn is bundled, along with Nolan, along with Fincher, along with PTA, and maybe Aronofsky too. These are directors who are white (check), male (check), and whose films, sticking with the latter theme, are regularly suffused with a choking stench of testosterone (Aronofsky obviously proves more problematic in this regard, mainly thanks to Black Swan).
Where does the supremacists part come in? Well, happily its nothing to do with any Lars von Trier-style mutation into the transgressive bore who buttonholes you at parties and attempts to shock you with their 'outrageous' line of chat. The use of that 's' word is instead intended to both reflect a slightly fascistic tendency to revere the named directors for their technical knowledge, to fetishise their comprehensive knowledge of lens sizes, as well as the totalitarian response that greets any criticism of them, with any hints of heresy against the WMSs usually being met with a damn good flaming, courtesy of the devoted.
Drive is only likely to further cement Winding Refn's status as the square-headed young trailblazer of the WMSs. For a start, it stars bloggers' delight Ryan Gosling as the unnamed central protagonist, a stunt-cum-getaway driver who also works in a garage run by Bryan Cranston's scraggly hobbler, Shannon. A great many reviewers were left wowed by the Gos's turn in Blue Valentine, although personally speaking I found his character in that film to be a tedious romanticisation of the working class, while the actor's own performance was littered with distracting tics (continually feeling up his massive tinted specs, for example).
Method man that he is – remember, we're talking about a guy who blimped out for his role in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, only to promptly get his newly-fat ass fired for indulging in such craziness – Gosling's character in Drive is also a walking, talking litany of twitches and mannerisms. He seems to be forever tightening his leather gloves, chewing on a match head, or just appearing rather odd in his diamond-quilted silver scorpion jacket, ball crunchingly-snug Spanish dancing trousers, and camel-coloured brogues. He looks less like an ace getaway driver and more like the star player on the in-house bowling team of a Vegas casino.
Even more important than the presence of Gosling in terms of solidifying the provisional WMS membership Winding Refn was granted following Bronson into gold-plated entry to the inner circle of that entirely made-up group is the fact that Drive is perhaps the most obviously nerd's eye fantasy since True Romance. Think about it, the central protagonist is doing not one but two real boy's own jobs – stunt car racer and getaway driver. He is a Zen-like stoic with an incredible talent, his skill behind the wheel being something that others, such as Shannon and ex-movie producer turned semi-successful gangster, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), can only marvel at.
Then there is his pretty neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has been left holding the cute kid while her partner, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), sees out his stint in clink. The icy veneer of Gosling's Driver is melted by she and the nipper (there is a, probably ill-judged, sunny scene of the trio enjoying an afternoon out), and love seems to be blossoming, possibly for the first time in his enigmatic existence. See? Late-night loners with a paucity of social skills can find themselves a sweetheart too. Bless.
In regards of story, Standard is soon enough back on the outside, and in serious trouble with the mob, meaning that the Driver, in a bid to shield Irene and her boy, is given license to indulge in some fanboy-delighting violence. Most of this is simply nihilistically over the top (stabbing an assailant with a shower curtain rod, stamping on a skull long beyond the point of cracking), although one incident leaves a sour taste in the mouth, when he gets rough with Christina Hendricks ' Blanche. It might be in-keeping with character and scenario, but a cool protagonist slapping a slow-witted young woman is scarcely edifying in a medium that still has deep and lingering issues over its presentation of the fairer sex.
Having said all that, much of Winding Refn's movie is hugely enjoyable, both in respect to content and styling. The synth-heavy soundtrack, the gliding shots of the steel and glass metropolis that is downtown LA, and even the lurid lipstick titles evoke the atmosphere of a low-key '80s action movie (Michael Mann also comes to mind). Meanwhile, the driving scenes are an old school joy too, particularly the tense, pre-credits game of cat and mouse between Gosling and the cops. The supporting cast are also excellent; Cranston and Brooks are equally terrific, Mulligan brings a sweetness to a wafer-thin role, and Ron Perlman is so good as goonish gangster Nino that you only wish he was granted greater screen time.
So if the underpinning ideology of it all (such as it is) is possibly open to dissent, then the sheer entertainment value of Drive is pretty much beyond reproach.
Rating on a scale of 5 hot rods: 4
Release date: UK = 23 September 2011; US = 16 September 2011
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay by: Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Jim Sallis
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks
Cert: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Running Time: 100 minutes