In 1968 Steve McQueen decided to go for a drive, a slow burning game of cat and mouse through the peaks and valleys of San Francisco’s now iconic boulevards that proved a man with a score to settle and access to a gleaming hunk of horsepower was in fact the quintessence of cool. Peter Yates’ Bullitt not only cemented McQueen and his faithful Mustang’s status as cultural icons but established a love affair between motor vehicle and movie screen which to this day shows no sign of hitting the brakes. Yet during an age in which fast and furious thrills have dominated the genre – McQueen’s smouldering, steely eyed machismo replaced by Vin and Dwayne’s fist pumping intensity – it would seem that key ingredient of ‘cool’ got left at the last garage. Thankfully Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive has stripped back the muscle-bound body kit, chucked the furry dice in the skip and left the nitrous oxide in the science lab, offering this year’s most instantly gratifying and effortlessly cool cinematic experience.
Ryan Gosling stars as an unnamed wheelman whose criminal activities support his day job as a stuntman. After meeting and subsequently falling for girl next door Irene (Carey Mulligan) our driver is sucked into a murderous chain of criminality by her jailbird husband. For much of Drive’s vehicular action the audience is on board with Gosling, submersed into a world of sinister synth ridden beats and bloody beatings. We watch a toothpick traverse his teeth, the tightening of his grip upon the steering wheel and the whites of his eyes as he stares down the police cruiser in his path, firmly placing the viewer in his double denim ensemble.
Refn’s visceral set pieces truly challenge the average hero-worship complex scrutinising moralistic parameters whilst simultaneously offering a morbid and sudden kick-start to the heart capable of turning stomachs and heads alike. Scenes in which the violence reaches its most excessive prove uncomfortable not due to their bone crushing tenacity but the jarring realisations which they raise – forcing us to bury our moral awakenings beneath Gosling’s pretty boy pretence whilst praying for his redemption. Our driver cannot comfortably carry the mantle of hero nor anti-hero, his numbness and ambiguity creating a forlorn shell with which impressionable audiences can imbue whatever status and interpretation they deem fit, real hero or real human being?
On paper Drive should not work, another forgettable homage to pulpy exploitation adapted from a frothy novel and wearing the influence of decades past upon its silver satin sleeve. It could have easily descended into a lightweight, Tarantino stamped mess of a movie however Refn’s deft yet masculine touch leaves just enough breathing room to savour every last drop of Drive’s hot pink cocktail of agony and ecstasy. The film is by no means perfect, the casting can feel wasteful as female lead Carey Mulligan and Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks seem overqualified for their underdeveloped roles and despite all the ferocity of Gosling’s deathwish-esque exploits, Drive culminates in somewhat of predictable whimper rather than a vengeful bang. However this does not stop Drive from being a brave and confrontational ode to all that is iconic and cool.