Posted on Monday May 23, 2011, 18:31 by Damon Wise in Cannes 2011
As you probably can tell from the sudden infrequency of this year's Cannes updates, the 64th festival didn't fizzle out after the world premiere of Terrence Malick's Tree Of Life – in fact, it actually got much, much busier. Screening the same day as Almodovar's almost perfectly bonkers The Skin I Live In, Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive roared across the screen and left audiences breathless. If you're familiar with Refn's Pusher trilogy you'll know a fair bit about his visceral style and fondness for extreme violence, but Drive isn't quite in that vein. Conceived as an homage to such LA noirs as Michael Mann's Thief (1981) – check out the title art – and William Friedkin's To Live And Die In LA (1985), Drive is actually more reminiscent of his two most obscure films – Bleeder (1999), which is Refn's only halfway romantic movie before this one, and Fear X (2003), a psychological thriller using music and mood to reflect its troubled hero's paranoid state of mind.
As it did in Fear X, atmosphere takes precedence here. Indeed, Drive is so 80s-tinged I thought it should come with a Carolco logo and a few fuzzy kinks to give it that watched-on-video look (Refn would prefer the Cannon imprimatur). But this is not just a Grindhouse pastiche, and neither, it must be stressed, a car-chase caper in the style of Fast & Furious 5 – as Refn and star Ryan Gosling were keen to emphasise, this is more of a God's Lonely Man story (no wonder Robert De Niro's jury gave it the Best Director prize).
After the talk-talk-talk of Blue Valentine, Drive is instantly notable for what it leaves unsaid, preferring to dwell instead on looks and stares. Quiet and brooding, Gosling plays Driver, a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway guy; his deal is that you get five minutes of his expertise and after that you're on your own. Driver is a moody Steve McQueen type, always chewing on a toothpick and wearing the same satin bomber jacket, emblazoned with an image 'borrowed' from Kenneth Anger's influential short film Scorpio Rising. The surface of Driver's solitary existence is broken when he strikes up a friendship with his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her young son. An affair seems to be brewing, but then Irene reveals her wayward husband is coming out of jail, and so Driver retreats back into his shell. Irene's husband, though, is in a bit of a fix. He owes protection money to gangsters who are trying to force him into carrying out a robbery as payment. Fearing that Irene and her son might get hurt, Driver agrees to help him, but the job turns out to be more dangerous than he thought.
It's hard to describe what happens next because Drive shoots in so many directions. It starts with scenes of tight, low-key, Bullitt-style tension, but when it explodes into violence it does so with a splashy bravado. This is a world where cigarettes smoulder and heads explode, scored with a pulsing synth soundtrack that sounds like a sleazier version of the background music from the original Miami Vice. Gosling may not fit everyone's bill as the strong, silent type, and Mulligan is a little underused, but Drive is nevertheless an exciting. kinetic, stop-start crime thriller that plays interesting games with our expectations, creating something rich and strange from some very familiar components but never failing to deliver the goods.
Refn's film gave the last leg of the festival a much-needed adrenaline blast, and the good news is that you won't have to wait too long to see it in the UK. Icon are revving up for a release on September 30, and they may well have a hit on their hands: a stylish, sexy and intelligent genre piece that engages the brain while it gleefully rips open the arteries.