Last week, BBC Culture released a list of the Top 100 Films of the 21st Century, as voted for by movie critics (click here for the list). It may be a bit premature, as we are only fifteen years into the 21st Century. ‘Mulholland Drive’ topped the list, which included critic friendly films such as ‘Tree of Life,’ ‘The Assassin,’ ‘The Diving Bell and The Butterfly,’ etc. I was surprised to see ‘The Dark Knight’ on there, as it is superhero movie, after all!
However, one film that I was shocked not to find on there was Nicolas Refn Winding’s ‘Drive.’ In my humble opinion, ‘Drive’ is one of the very best films of the 21st Century. It’s an exercise in almost pure cinema, where visuals guide the narrative and dialogue is reduced to a minimum. The soundtrack is never less than superb. I was mesmerised by it the first time I watched it, and even after several re-viewings, that feeling still remains. It’s style over substance, but only just.
The plot is simple: The Driver, an unnamed man played by Ryan Gosling, has a few jobs. By day he’s a stunt driver and a mechanic, by night he’s in the driving seat for getaway cars. He falls for the lady next door, Irene, but the release of her husband from prison gets The Driver involved in a pawn shop robbery that goes awry. Soon, The Driver is entangled in some dangerous business…
Let’s get this straight: it may have been marketed as a ‘Fast and Furious’ type film, but ‘Drive’ is nothing like that CGI car-filled franchise. Right from the opening scene, we witness a believable and tangible car chase/escape scene. The Driver gives his instructions to a pair of robbers, waits for them, and escorts them to safety, evading police cars and handily getting lost in a crowd leaving a basketball game. There’s a light soundtrack, but the beat of the scene is the radio commentary for the aforementioned sports game. It signals not only what is happening in the game, but what is happening in the chase as well. The opening scene drew me in, hook line and sinker. Then the strings of Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’ plunged me further into this film as the opening credits hit…
“Hey, do you want to see something?”
If you’re one for intense, plentiful dialogue, then this film isn’t for you. Gosling has to act, rather than speak, his emotions and intentions most of the time. We simply see Irene and The Driver fall in love, in a montage that’s without dialogue but plays along to the 1980s’ pop homage of ‘A Real Hero.’ Gosling is at his finest here, able to convey everything with a twitch of the lip or a stern look. The side characters, of a great cast including Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, have more lines each than Irene and The Driver put together. I introduced the film to my fiancée as one of the best films of the past decade, and she found it boring. ‘I just want them to say something!’ she said as one point.
But she’s missing the point. Isn’t cinema about showing us what’s happening, rather than telling us? We don’t need Irene and The Driver to share their feelings with each other verbally; their eyes and gestures show us all we need to know. The Driver’s usual silence adds layers to his character than we, the viewer, can fill in however we like. He seems like an average, quiet guy until he’s accosted by someone at a bar. The Driver responds “How ’bout this. You shut your mouth. Or I’ll kick your teeth down your throat and I’ll shut it for you.” Now we know that he’s the silent, violent type. It’s his eyes, more than his vocals, that threaten the man (and us). We only begin to see the other side to The Driver, and hints of what he can do (just like ‘Only God Forgives’, there are visuals of Gosling clenching his fists. But they are scattered, rather than taking up half of the film).
Bursts of extreme violence only draw us deeper into the story. The Driver attacks someone with a hammer. Albert Brooks’s character slices open someone’s arm, so we can see the meat. A woman’s head is blown off by a shotgun blast. But these scenes of violence drive the narrative, rather than being squeezed in to disgust us (such as the torture scene in Refn’s ‘Only God Forgives.’ I thought that wholly unnecessary.). Just like the car chases, the violence is (mostly) realistic and contains a purpose. There are three main car chases, roughly at the beginning, middle and end, and they reminded me of the car chase scenes in Cronenberg’s ‘Crash.’ You can feel the steel scraping steel, the gears crunching into place. They take place on a plane that we can sense is in some sense ‘real,’ rather than taking place on a computer screen.
“You know the story about the scorpion and the frog?”
Refn won the Best Director Award at Cannes for ‘Drive,’ and it’s easy to see why. It’s arthouse in places, with sumptuous scenery, an L.A. that looks like a beautiful nightmare, and a stripped down dialogue that let’s actions speak louder than words. The Cannes Award makes it all the more startling that ‘Drive’ isn’t in the Top 100 List. Is it because the critics hated his latter works, ‘Only God Forgives’ and ‘The Neon Demon’? It’s a theory (but Lars Von Triers’ work is represented on the list, and he made the critic-unfriendly ‘Anti-Christ.’).
But ‘Drive,’ from start to finish, is a modern fairy tale that you won’t forget. The soundtrack sounds as if it has been stolen from a 1980s movie. Scenes of extreme violence blend naturally with scenes of shared love and intense beauty. Gosling, whilst barely saying a word, steals the show with his intense performance (and all of the other actors/actresses are at the top of their game as well). As a visual and aural experience, ‘Drive’ is overwhelming. There may be nothing beneath the surface, or there may be plenty; that’s up to the viewer to decide. But it’s something you’ll find hard to forget, and the soundtrack will remain in your head for a long time. I said that ‘The Neon Demon’ was Refn’s masterpiece…but yet another viewing of ‘Drive’ makes me question that statement…
VERDICT: 9/10. Is ‘Drive’ Refn’s masterpiece? I adored ‘The Neon Demon,’ but after repeated viewings of ‘Drive’, I still have the same feelings about it as when I first watched it. Beautiful, brilliant, haunting, thrilling, and seductive in equal measures. And one of the best movies of the 21st Century!
What do you think about ‘Drive’? Leave your comments below!
Click here for my review of ‘Only God Forgives’
Click here for my review of ‘The Neon Demon’