"Is he a bad guy?" "Yeah." "How can you tell?" "Because he's a shark." "There's no good sharks?" It’s this bit of dialogue that our Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Irene’s (Carey Mulligan) son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), share that gets to the heart of what Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” is at its core. It’s a story that is all about one man’s attempt at repentance; it's a dramatic and artistically manifested character study that resides in the skin of an action, car-centric, thriller. Refn fabricates a film that has so much visual storytelling that it's hard to believe the movie was only released five years ago because it maintains an old-fashioned feel in how Refn produces a silent film in hiding.
“Drive” uses it dialogue in that way, if it ever does say anything at all, it's for a designated purpose. It’s a story that would usually be given a hefty dose of dialogue with cheesy lines that are meant to evoke an enthusiastic response from the audience; it's traditionally expected to focus far more on the action and the car chases than the man behind the wheel.
“Drive” does the complete opposite, telling a story about a man whose name remains a mystery to us, even after the credits roll, we only know him as the Driver (Ryan Gosling). His backstory, his upbringing, and most of the details we would usually get are all thrown to the wayside and forgotten. Instead, we are given moments that are meant to be open for interpretation. An interpretation that evokes a feeling of heartache for myself, because, despite our lack of knowledge for this man’s past and his identity, we learn about the man he is. He’s someone seeking that righteousness for his committed sins; we know that his history is far darker than he lets on. We see that when he meets the family next door consisting of a single mother, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos).
He regularly has a grin on his face, as if he's finally found his place to rest, but we learn that her husband was in prison all this time. Finally released to a family welcoming home, a man (Oscar Isaac) whose past sins force him back into life. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) wants to be a real hero, a real human being as one of the film’s essential songs suggests, he throws his hat in the ring to save this man from his debt. When the job goes awry, we’re left with a man who has to overcome his vengeful anger, left with few choices to make to get back to that feeling of serenity.
Until that point, his self-inflicted guilt feels unwarranted as the film opens with him committing a crime, one that seems to be relatively free of the sin that we see him carry, at least at the weight he carrying it. We see him express his rules to the men he’s assisting in the robbery, he’s the getaway driver, but he’s one that doesn’t come cheap. He’s there for the job, he doesn’t carry a gun, he owes them nothing when the job is done, and he’s damn good at his job.
We watch him speed through the streets of Los Angeles in a way that isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before. There are no wide shots of him driving away with an army of police cars following him. Instead, he's a tactician, and he's strategic with his vehicular maneuverability. He stops and hides in plain sight, he chooses a car that blends in, and he moves through the chase with a sense of artistry that leaves his associates with a stunned looked on their face, as if they find his strategy a bit unfamiliar, but they know that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
The way he gets out of this chase is sly as well, but the entire scene is treated with a heft of focus by Refn and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel. They shoot the whole chase from inside the vehicle, providing that perspective filled the feeling of being apart of the pursuit. You hear the engine rev, and it feels as if your sitting next to the driver, experiencing the revs of the engine and the adrenaline of a car chase. Refn delivers that type of neorealism/noirish style to the film, always maintaining the sheer sense of realism while providing a noir style.
The soundtrack echoes that, with strange, rhythmic, and magnetic, electronic music that echoes how Refn is clouding his story’s emotions with style. Though his style is resonating and beautiful to watch, the emotions become hidden behind that style. It’s the one lagging flaw to be found in this story because it's an elegant exercise in the form a filmmaker uses is what makes “Drive” special.
He extends it further and farther than it deserves to be, allowing that noirish essence to lend to the realism of the film while maintaining a level of emotion due to the sheer brilliance of the writing behind our hero. Written by Hossein Amini ("Snow White and the Huntsman" & "47 Ronin") and based off the novel by James Sallis, “Drive” has a sense of normality to its screenplay, almost as if it's purposefully turned down.
The action, the blockbuster potential, and the sheer excitement of it all feel turned down, but the humanity is turned all the way up. Not only in how our hero is handled, but in how the world is rendered. The tagline of the poster says “there are no clean getaways” which feels eloquently precise for what this film’s story is attempting to become, but in all fairness, that story hinges on our main character. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a man who carries a sense of guilt as I said, but it takes a while before we figure out why.
Before we see that darker side of himself, that he finds himself fighting off more often than not, he wants to rest and feel the warmth of life once again, but he’s lost to the life he’s become apart of, being forced to become the coiled scorpion that resides on his jacket. Injecting venom into those who dare to tempt him, that same violent venom that seems to poison his life more than others, and Ryan Gosling exhumes that character arc better than anyone possibly could. He’s like Steve McQueen in that way; he’s charismatic but subtle. He embodies presence and sincerity.
He’s an actor that continually challenges himself with characters needing a sense of powerhouse performance, even manifesting a character whose love for a doll becomes as poignant as anything we’ve seen before in “Lars and The Real Girl.” Audiences felt they were sold a bill of goods after seeing this impeccable actor in “Drive” though, they expected this to be his turn towards action and spectacle, but Ryan continues to remain in favor of quality over quantity. He shows up on the silver screen one to two times a year, and each time it's special.
Much like “Drive,” a film that sold itself as something that audiences love, but one that merely inhabits the exterior of that genre and is made up of something far more poignantly with that of its internal aspects. The audience wasn't lied too; they just weren’t told the whole truth.