Just in case you’re not sure what you’re getting yourself in for Drive blatantly pleads its case right from the word ‘Go!’; the pink neon credit font and throbbing techno synth score show off that prominent eighties style early, somehow hooking you in and throwing you back simultaneously. From there we are given a brief, brief introduction of concept – he’s a getaway driver and a bloody good one at that, thanks to his day job, film-set stunt driving – before we are thrown straight into a tense and terrifically clever action sequence (who says that the two must always be separate?) showing The Driver doing what it is he does best (take a guess!).
It’s such a compelling and unique intro, it not only gets you interested in seeing where this thing is going but physically forces you to continue through; it’s unfortunate then that the case Drive presents so very skillfully in this sequence is actually the wrong one, it’s for the wrong client and in the wrong court. The film straps you into the passenger seat and then throws itself straight into reverse, completely confounding any expectations you may have had and completely failing to meet any of that early promise.
Though the film begins, quite literally, with a conversation about revving up with ‘Benzedrine, Nexedrine, caffeine or nicotine’ it’s only very briefly the kind of adrenaline ride those terms suggest, instead it’s quite happy to play the zombie and sleepwalk it’s way through the next fourty odd minutes. Our protagonist, The Driver, is damn good at his job because he drives like a machine – flawless and logical – unfortunately though he also lives like a machine – emotionless and logical -, there is even a through-line about the fact that he doesn’t blink; he is so cold that Bronson – the lead of Director Refn’s most famous movie and a notorious serial killer – comes across as the more relatable protagonist.
We get to know nothing about this man besides his skill behind the wheel and so we quite simply can’t care about what happens to him. Given that he is so secluded, such an emotional recluse I started to wonder ‘Is there some kind of fantasy at play within the movie?’ What he pretends in the day he may simply be trying to make real at night; so one has to ask, ‘Are these chases real or are they simply The Driver’s imagination taking over’? This may seem a stretch but it is actually especially relevant given Refn’s predilection for this kind of thing, just see Bronson‘s unique structure. Though it’s nowhere near as explosively experimental as that film there is something interestingly meta about it and the way it self-reflexively commentates on itself; though you’d be excused for not expecting such cerebrality after the much more phenominological open.
The film sells itself as a spiritual return to that old eighties model of actioner and as such it follows that same old action formula, hitting all of those same old plot beats but the difference lies in the fact that they are executed in a distinctly ‘European’ (as one of the characters put it) fashion. Ie. With a subtle and impressionistic manner. So a good three-quarters of the film is dedicated to silence: music lead montages, characters posing ponderously, wide shots of cars streaming down highways, etc., etc., etc. It feels like Refn is saying, ‘Because we all know this plot so well, why should I bother telling it?’ and so we are simply set to the task of assuming relationships based on prevalent cliche. While it’s all well and good to recognize that your plot is rote and repetitive, the key is to then either rebel against or over embrace the fact and not to simply shrug it off like Refn does here, because without an interesting plot we care even less about what’s going on.
Though of course, like with those eighties actioners people aren’t likely to come see this for the plot or the characters, they’re here for the action, does it deliver on that front? Well, yes and no. Those car chases that we get are gorgeous, frenetic dances of grinding metal that you can both admire for their beauty and cheer for their inherent coolness, they’re classics but suped up through modern technology – much like the cars themselves – but we only get two of them and one is, as I mentioned earlier, in the films open. There are more than just car chases here to sate your primal urges though as The Driver does himself a fair amount of fighting and shooting by the time the second set of credits roll; however these off-road action scenes ( as in, the action which takes place outside of the cars) is altogether much less gutsy and much more… well gutsy (as in focused on the organs which are taken outside of the characters); therefore they have none of the tension of those terrific chases.
When you get down to it Winding Refn’s presence is what both makes and breaks this film: his stylistic flourishes are what elevate it above those eighties actioners that it seeks, at least on the surface, to emulate and a lot of the time those shots and sequences are rather stunning, however it is this predilection for picture over plot that also really reduces the films ultimate impact, spending as it does more time disemboweling it’s characters than it did fleshing them out. If all you’re looking for in the film is image, artistic integrity and inventive direction than you will likely enjoy it; if, however, you want a good and well-told story than you will, like I was, be sadly disappointed by this barely passable production, it’s all a matter of preference.