By day, ‘Driver’ (Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt man, but by night he makes his real money in the criminal underworld as a top-flight getaway driver. When pretty but very married next-door neighbour Irene (Mulligan) is menaced by hoods, he steps in to protect her and her little boy, only to find himself in an escalating conflict between the local thugs and the Mafia.
Alan Ladd's 1953 classic Western Shane is a tale of a man who, trying to escape his past, turns up at a homestead and, in trying to save a woman and her child from black-hats, finds himself drawn inexorably back into the violence he has tried to escape. Drive is very much like Shane, in that it has a strong, silent hero, determined to do right by the innocent while struggling against his character which, as Heraclitus so pithily put it, is also his fate. But it also has a sequence of a man having his cranium reduced to a bloody pulp by an enthusiastically deployed boot à la Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, someone gets a fork shoved in their face, and a good portion of it is shot in slow motion. It is therefore that much better.
Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish director best known for the Pusher trilogy and 2008’s thug-opic Bronson, is proof of the fact that American pulp is sometimes much better done by Europeans. Think of Paul Verhoeven’s mischievous satires RoboCop and Starship Troopers. Here Refn delivers a gripping, gritty neo-noir drenched in so much mid-’80s styling that the only thing that seems to be missing is Simon Bates thanking us for listening and exhorting us to enjoy the film.
Refn’s skills are not limited to artfully conceived bloodletting: an opening sequence in which our hero practises his trade, transporting a pair of thieves from their place of business to safety, dodging, parking and reversing, is a masterclass of cutting in which the precision of the editing matches that of the driving (and actually it’s far more exciting than the more conventional car chase later in the movie). Meanwhile Newton Thomas Sigel’s sheeny cinematography delivers gorgeous chopper shots of the neon-flecked night-time streets of LA and moody renderings of asphalt car parks, race-tracks and diners. The cumulative and exhilarating sensation is that Walter Hill or William Friedkin made an urban noir sometime back in 1986 and somehow you missed it (and it’s easily as good as The Driver or To Live And Die In LA).
And Refn’s good taste extends to the casting. Carey Mulligan might not have a lot to do, but she looks believably vulnerable; Albert Brooks proves that actors more familiar with comedy can often turn on their menacing side to great effect (it’s he who gets to stick a fork in a guy’s face), while Ron Perlman, well, as usual Ron Perlman just has to turn up, really.
And then there’s Ryan Gosling. Starmaking roles are as rare as actual stars these days, but this just might be one. Gosling pushes the strong, silent (exceptionally pretty) type almost, but only almost, to parody. Toothpick permanently wedged between his teeth (an obvious nod to Clint Eastwood’s ’60s cheroot, and indeed, the ‘no-name hero’ and vengeance fantasy plot reinforce the feeling that this might be as much Western as thriller), he channels the glacially imperturbable attitude of Steve McQueen. He even manages to make what looks like a quilted jacket sporting a yellow scorpion emblazoned on the back — a nod either to Kenneth Anger’s cult 1964 short Scorpio Rising or the fable of The Scorpion And The Frog, depending on who you believe — look like something you might want to check out on your next visit to Topman. An actor hasn’t looked this cool in rubbish duds since Brad Pitt in that teapot dressing-gown in Fight Club. But Drive’s primary pleasure is its astonishingly realised retro style: it’s as if someone distilled a tincture of the ’80s, all cocaine attitude and Giorgio Moroder, and mainlined it into something like the present. Top Gear, then.
Oh alright, it ain’t Shane. But it is about as much shamelessly disreputable, stylish, ultra-violent fun you’re going to have at the movies this year.