L.A. is a road that the city runs through. If you haven’t got a car in Los Angeles, you’re homeless. I know you could say the same about much of America, but no other big city is so in thrall to the steering wheel. You can’t see L.A. unless you drive. You’re not a part of it unless you’re looking out a window. No-one gets away in L.A. crime stories because a clean getaway means the end of the road: think of Faye Dunaway dying in a car in Chinatown, or Robert De Niro choosing death as he drives through the 2nd Street Tunnel in Heat. Director Nicolas Winding Refn can’t drive, in real life, but he understands the car’s hold over Los Angeles. Drive is a movie about hunger for the road, and the people the road kills.
With a score that Giorgio Moroder would have been proud of, this movie is clearly not designed to be a heartfelt paean to working class Los Angelinos. It’s more a paean to Brian De Palma, or Michael Mann movies, and we’re in a movie world right from the beginning; with the tale of a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway man. Ryan Gosling is as glacially cool as the music, as he chews on a toothpick in the manner of Charles Bronson, and struts around in a white satin jacket emblazoned with a gold scorpion. He’s a man with no name (literally, the script lists him as “Driver”), an itinerant psychotic who longs to do some good. When the struggling mom next door needs his help; his hammer is at the ready.
I can’t emphasise enough how cool Ryan Gosling looks. There are moments in Drive where he approaches a Steve McQueen level of star quality: that aura of complete detachment that was McQueen, laconic in a way that makes conversation garish, sexual in a way that makes a smile feel like an invitation to bed. He barely says a hundred words in this movie, and still you know Carey Mulligan’s character (the mom) would leave her husband for him. Even when he stamps on a man’s head until it bursts – right in front of Mulligan – she seems willing to give him benefit of the doubt. He’s a man who threatens to hammer a bullet into a man’s face (with a hammer) – and yet, he’s the hero. Synthesizers pulse whenever he’s on screen. His sartorial taste is immaculate. No wonder the credits look like they’re written in lipstick: in Drive, the camera closes on Gosling in a lingering kiss. His director is flagrantly in love with him.
Like a play on Jean Luc Godard’s famous aphorism (“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl”), Nicolas Winding Refn has based his entire career on movies about violence and good-looking men. He couldn’t care less about girls. Carey Mulligan is completely miscast here, and Refn doesn’t give a damn. Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks gets her pretty head blown off, and Refn is obviously a lot more interested in her death (slo-mo, brain matter) than he is in watching her jiggle around. Violence arouses him more than sex, and he puts the tone of Drive in jeopardy more than once with his fetish for blood. Even desensitized viewers may squirm as Ryan Gosling stamps that poor henchman’s head into strawberry jam.
There’s a lurid predilection that goes with the cool in Drive, very much reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s Scarface. You can see hints of Michael Mann in the sangfroid Gosling exhibits, but when the knives come out, there’s a lot more horror than you find in Heat. By the time Albert Brooks has stabbed a fork in someone’s eye, you’re just about getting used to brazen bloodshed. But it’s a queasy education, and not one most audiences will enjoy. I preferred to concentrate on the music (80s disco, mirror ball stuff) and Gosling’s white satin jacket, which is so impossibly cool, you believe he could get away with murder while wearing it. Judged purely as an exercise in style, the movie is like being kidnapped by Karl Lagerfeld.
I wouldn’t trust anyone who calls Drive “an existentialist drama”. Ryan Gosling isn’t exactly playing Søren Kierkegaard behind the wheel. He’s just a man living a movie fantasy. He doesn’t have a life beyond the car because, on-screen, less is more. The lack of explanation is a stylistic quirk, not a philosophical statement. Gosling’s character should more tellingly be called “jacket” than “driver”. He’s a poseur. This isn’t Antonioni’s The Passenger; it’s a sexy crime flick, like William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. Sure, the pace is European, and the lighting is beautiful, but at heart, like Los Angeles, it all takes place at the movies. Mesmerizing as it is to watch Gosling behind the wheel; beyond the road, it’s a desert.