There appears to be an unspoken consensus that action movies are supposed to be low-brow summer flicks that offer cheap thrills and excitement without being anything to write home about when it comes to the technicalities of film making and story telling. But for every twenty or so new entries in a redundant franchise like The Fast and the Furious, there is one movie that pushes the envelope and delivers something that is actually worth more than a cursory glance.
One such movie is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. It’s a slick action-noir story that follows Ryan Gosling’s unnamed character (who I shall henceforth refer to as the Driver for clarity’s sake) in his quest for… well, nothing, really. Drive is an interesting beast in that it offers very little in terms of backstory or characterization when it comes to the protagonist, while still turning him into someone the viewer can root for and sympathize with. He’s a deeply cautious and introverted man who seems to share Neil McCauley’s philosophy in Heat – never get attached to anything you can’t walk out on in 5 seconds’ time once push comes to shove. His face is an emotionless mask that manages to appear both awkward and intimidating at the same time thanks to Gosling’s amazing performance. The Driver’s sullen silences prompt his interlocutors to talk more than they usually would, and while this could’ve easily resulted in a series of expository monologues that would’ve taken away from the movie’s atmosphere and understated presentation, not once does any of the information we are fed feel forced or out of place.
The story itself is nothing spectacular. Sure, it’s quite a bit darker than your run of the mill action flick, but it isn’t particularly complex or hard to understand. What’s interesting about it is that it offers a cyclical sort of development for the main character. The Driver goes through three distinct phases: first, we see him as a cool-headed getaway driver with a stoic complexion and nerves of steel; then he falls in love with his neighbor, Irene, and his budding relationship with her and her son Benicio takes him on a journey towards something resembling a normal life; and in the third act of the movie we find the Driver back where he was in the beginning, except now he’s filled with a lust for vengeance and violence. There is no redemption for the main character in Drive. The Driver ends up in an even darker spot than he once was, a sort of existential hero that has once again fallen out of love with life and realized that meaning cannot be derived from anything worldly.
Script aside, possibly the most exciting part of Drive are its visuals, which is unsurprising, considering it’s a prime example of the so-called arthouse action film genre that was spawned by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in 1954. The lighting is practically a character of its own in this movie, it parallels the Driver’s internal struggle and reflects his choices. The elevator scene is a prime example of this. The shadows change position as the Driver switches between the reality he wants to achieve and exist in, in which he is with Irene and nothing else matters, and the one that he is presented with and is forced to deal with, in which he has to fight for his life and be as brutal and unforgiving as possible. There are countless examples of brilliant lighting tricks in this movie, and their effects are enhanced even further by the consistently interesting framing of the shots. There are other techniques used as well, the type you usually see in foreign movies nowadays, which aren’t exactly central to the story but all add up to make the gloomy atmosphere as enveloping and crushing as possible. One of them is the Vertigo effect, as the Driver looks out at the city from his apartment. The foreground remains stable but the city itself seems to shift further away, its size changes and morphs ever so slightly, just enough to make the viewer completely cognizant of its slow retreat. It’s a form of perspective distortion that works remarkably well when used in the appropriate moment and to the appropriate degree.
Overall, I believe Drive to be one of the best action movies ever made. I do have a few minor nitpicks, like the nauseatingly annoying vocals in some parts of the soundtrack and the admittedly lacking story, but they just aren’t enough to eclipse the movie’s great technical and visual efforts. The car chases are as intense and gritty as they come and their influence on movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Baby Driver is obvious. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the most important thing about a movie that doesn’t set out to be a huge box office hit? To push the boundaries of its genre and ask of us, as viewers, to pay a little more attention to the smaller, more subtle beauties that the medium can offer? I believe that to be the case, and Drive does it in style.