Calculated and precise, flawed, a vision with cojones and Albert Brooks kills someone.
Drive is a richly detailed and articulate film that goes slow, paints minutiae in Technicolor gouache landscapes of 1970s machismo, man and gun stuff where bravado and innuendo fuel action not insipid dialog or needless exposition. You know you’re watching a Nicolas Winding Refn film in the subtle shadows and picture perfect vignettes where everything has something to say with just enough time to say it. We’re introduced to this world carefully, a man shape at a window sized view of a bedded Los Angeles nightscape, his voice down low, commanding, instructing – there are no omniscient god voices or perfect narrators here, this is experiential, tactile. That’s Refn, putting us in the tree outside to feel the limbs digging in so we know why we’re there. ‘Stay there,’ you can almost hear him whisper. You’d think by the way he sets us aside he’s making movies for himself until you realize – he does and we love him for it.
You don’t have to like Drive to admit how compelling it is, how simple – so simple you can’t help but wonder why filmmakers make it look so hard, why they spend so much money on light bulbs and effects for the sake of something to do with aerosol and tired comic books. This is the kind of film that wakes you from a stupor, forces you down into a trench of our collective senses that cuts clean lines in our psyche, lives there, gives our hearts something to beat about. You maybe don’t even realize how connected you are until the first scene ends, the first glimpse into this world holds your every second, turns you into the perfect hamster waiting at the cage door of your life for the next meal of gerbil bullets. Refn holds the bag and then it dawns on you that you’re OK with waiting as long as he makes every movie for the rest of our lives.
Drive follows the moments of an enigmatic loner short on words with a damaged past and no future to speak of. By day he drives cars for the movies but that’s only killing time as much as he whittles away at gas stained carburetors and oil bathed big blocks – see, he’s stuck in centuries gone by when cars roared through fat piped exhausts and telephones with those damn spiraling cords that never worked right were heavy in your hand, weight in your arm that made you want to touch the person on the other end instead of talk about it. We know this guy, he’s Driver, concrete; he needs to feel things and working in a garage gives him smooth metal fenders and loud engines to drone out the city and people. He holds a fat Holly 4-barrel carburetor like a baby in his arms or a skull – a Shakespearean everyman, the price of Denmark, a rogue with no pretense or false anything. You know he would die for you, kill for you and deep down in the pit of your stomach you need him that way more than you’ve ever needed air or chocolate chip cookie dough. Driver lives and breathes gasoline fumes and his lips taste like exhaust, leather gloves and sweat fused to steering wheels without airbags and plastic ding-dong boxes in the way of your gauges, his heart beating so fast the car seat throbs it and all you want to do is be near him. But he can’t go on this way forever, he’s human or he was and inevitably his world slams into her, radiant, the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen and for a little while he thinks maybe he doesn’t have to be like this, this brokenness, this lifespan of seconds. This movie is about that interlude, the moments between the moments but like it or not it’s over, it was a dream, he knew it all along. Before he can taste tomorrow it’s snatched out of his mouth, torn from his taste buds – see, it wasn’t real, it never is. The girl is the beginning and end of everything, we know it because Driver knows it and like Refn, he gives us heaping spoonfuls of the stuff until we’re choking on it the sickly sweet dream before he slams our face into sidewalk and asks us if we taste the back of our throats.
While Drive exceeds our expectations in almost every way, robbing us of our addiction to explosions and comic book worlds where nothing is what it could be and is often much less, it does slip up, stutter here and there, stumble over itself in Refn’s obsession with visceral hopelessness and used up people. No film is perfect and neither is Drive but you can’t expect perfect from Refn, it wouldn’t work and besides, we can’t handle perfection it reminds us how flawed we are and we hate mirrors of our imperfections. In this way Refn is like Aronofsky, relentless in his portraiture of damaged people and the brutality of our relationships in the way we make dead and dying by decision. It’s in this kind of revelation that we always need our creators to hold back the darkness that lives in us, show us bits at a time instead of the sheer F.U. of it all. It’s tough to lose everything, to know things can and do go out like this. Refn knows this but he can’t help but push the rpm gauge in the red, the engine peaked out as the accelerator pedal burns into the floorboard. We know the inevitable collision with the ground, with the physics of the universe and for as much as he takes us there we can’t help but go. This is Refn’s fault, knowing when to say when and choosing instead to keep going, beyond the place of no return even when we don’t have enough fuel to get back home.
Refn’s movies are a voyage into outer space where you have to calculate every molecule of fuel in order to get back home again. If you spend all your fuel getting there, well, you must be in a Refn film so be prepared to protect yourself from your comrades. You know you’ve been in a Refn film when your legs feel like tree trunks and you can’t imagine ever going back to your job again, maybe home, maybe it’s time for your own movie about forlorn choices and the importance of seconds – if only Refn would make your life matter this much in a movie.
The devil is in the details they say and this film jabs a fork in your eye to make you see. Not for the squeamish, not for superfluousness action junkies – this is a rollercoaster of calculated turns, twists and loops where ultra-violence and introspective sequences come together then burst apart. For moments things are slowed down with golden sunlight and the perfect kiss you could ever imagine or remember – a tiny world come to life on a scroll with an out of tune player piano from some old forgotten saloon plucking a far away tune in a curio cabinet staged only for you. You will remember this film and cherish the subtly, enjoy the moments and wish you were there whether or not you loved it knowing you have to admit you liked it a lot.