Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was one of the true sensations of this year’s Cannes film festival. Though it may understandably seem otherwise, I don’t mean it as a knock when I note that I can completely understand that the contrast it offered potentially elevated the critical assessment of the work. I’m not as seasoned as some, but I’ve been a dedicated participant at enough film festivals to know that prolonged exposure to the achingly serious, defiantly arid works that dominate the fest circuit can make any movie that has a measurable pulse to it seem like an astonishing bolt of aberrant filmmaking genius. If the movie in question also adheres to the deliberate pacing and casual nihilism of the arthouse circuit, all the better. Drive arrives in theaters with a nearly insurmountable rag pile of expectation. It redefines action films while also fulfilling the deepest desires of the most serious moviegoers with its existential gloom. Despite the fevered predictions, it can’t really be all things to all people. However, it can by a sly, evocative movie that outshines its elements of overt homage to feel like a hybrid that develops into something original.
Ryan Gosling plays a character named in the credits as “Driver,” but more commonly named only as “Kid” in the course of the movie. He’s a part-time movie stunt driver who also earns extra scratch serving as the wheelman for, it is implied, a variety of illicit endeavors. When he becomes enamored with a neighbor, played by Carey Mulligan with her usual sweet, slow burn charm that makes the whole enamored thing fully understandable, he’s also drawn into the surprisingly fraught scenarios that surround her, including a big, dark tangle with east coast mobster thugs. Part of the sleek appeal of Drive is the way it presents its terrible dilemmas with a sort of icy detachment. Other movies may aspire to play it cool, but Drive achieves it. In its transparent and effectively attempts to apply artistry to the trashiest of storylines, Drive doesn’t only walk the fine line between the two extremes of film styles, but calls into question if that line existed in the first place.
The film it consistently reminded me of was Ti West’s The House of the Devil. Like that effort, Drive lovingly adheres to all the tropes of a widely and wisely maligned genre of film in a specific era, while also transforming it, largely with a level of patience that emphatically belongs to the world of independent film. Devil was a tribute to horror films of that bridges the late seventies with the early eighties, and Drive is a devoted disciple to the action films of the exact same era, right down to the cursive scrawl of the credits and the bending electronica score by Cliff Martinez that plays like the great long lost Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It’s derivative, but proudly, knowingly so. It doesn’t strive to reinvent a genre, but it does make a herculean effort to reconceptualize it. This, Refn seems to say, is what an action movie can be if it embraces the sun-dappled pretensions of art. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, in particular, is an overt act of imposing gorgeous artistry onto genre conventions, a conceit best exemplified by the ludicrous golden sunlight that intrudes through the windows of a dirty garage where some of the dirtiest dealings go down.
Some have argued that Drive is a film that will be best appreciated ten years from now, when the hype and inevitable backlash have both died away and an actual film, with aspirations separated from constructed expectations, can emerge. That may be right. In the here and now, I can easily imagine arthouse audiences being put off by the overt car chase adoration and action fans feeling overly lulled by the film’s considered pacing. With a little distance, it seems more likely that the film will stand on its own as something that compresses different eras of filmmaking sensibilities into a single work, trading on archetypes for the purpose of finding stark, heartbreaking truths. For now, if it mostly comes across as chilly and challenging, that’s its own accomplishment. Drive may leave some audiences baffled, but they should certainly know that they’ve seem something crafted with outlandish ambition.