A true triumph of style over substance

Combining a cool, kitsch soundtrack, extreme violence and a tooth pick, Drive is a brilliant, profound play upon the action movie.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Among the films that triumphed at Cannes this year, Drive seems pretty out of place. While the Palme d’Or and Best Actress awards went to Tree of Life and Melancholia, two films that respectively tackle the beginning and end of all life, Drive, a film about a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver, won Nicolas Winding Refn the prize for Best Director. But while it may sound like a wobbly premise for another The Fast and the Furious movie, Drive is an intense, affecting and prizeworthy thrill ride.

The plot combines all the aspects of violence, romance and revenge one would expect. While living alone and working as a stuntman, mechanic and getaway driver for hire, the unnamed protagonist (Ryan Gosling) becomes enamoured with mum-next-door Irene (Carey Mulligan). But just as they’re hitting it off, her jailbird husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released. The driver takes a respectful step back, yet gets pulled into helping Standard do one last job to pay back his protection-money debts from prison. Needless to say it doesn’t go to plan, launching the driver into a brutal fight to save himself and the family he has come to adore. Clearly, the premise isn’t all that original, but it is saved by the intelligence and style with which it is executed.

Adapted from James Sallis’ 2005 novel of the same name, Drive has been in the works for a few years. Originally an action-mystery vehicle for Hugh Jackman, Ryan Gosling was brought in as the new leading man in 2010 and asked Refn to direct. With both Gosling and Refn unaccustomed to the action genre, there is a noticeable reluctance to make just another throwaway explosion-filled flick, as Drive deftly embraces and deflects action-movie convention.

The film opens with sweeping aerial shots of the Los Angeles skyline, yet this moody image is accompanied by synth-drenched pop and pink Risky Business-style titles. This juxtaposition of the stern and the kitsch runs throughout the film. A case in point is the protagonist’s signature jacket: a quilted, cream, satin number with a large scorpion on the back, which stands in flamboyant contrast to his otherwise blank and inexpressive manner. Gosling’s character is also one of the few action-movie heroes who you’re likely to see wearing rather sensible driving gloves.

After a relatively tame opening, the second half of the film becomes outlandishly gory, yet this constant mediation between the serious and the surreal prevents the film from descending into self-indulgence. For instance, one scene in which the driver attacks the owner of a strip-club with a hammer is offset by the bizarre presence of 20 naked strippers all staring vacantly at the horrific sight.

However, this constant play with convention never threatens to compromise the film’s intensity. The driving sequences are understated yet very thrilling. Similarly, despite the sparse amount of dialogue, the romance which brews between the driver and Irene is particularly affecting.

While Drive incorporates some of the action genre’s most tired clichés, Refn excels at taking these standard components and putting them into an odd and more interesting space. The constant fluctuation in tone is at times perplexing, yet the film is all the more engaging for it.

In recent years, action filmmakers have either opted for high concepts, epitomised by Christopher Nolan’s Inception, or attempted to give us more bang for our buck with action-star ensemble pieces, such as Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables. Drive does neither. With an inventive eye, Nicolas Winding Refn proceeds to make a conventional plot line unrecognisable and, more importantly, enjoyable.

Like all great action films, Drive is a triumph of style over substance.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Drive:

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