Drive At Five: Revisiting the best cult film of the decade
Some films take a long time to reach cult status. Battered by critics, ignored by audiences on release, left to be forgotten in the silver screen wasteland until someone influential rediscovers this buried treasure and spreads the word, forcing critics and audiences alike to realise their mistake and proclaim it a forgotten masterpiece. It’s A Wonderful Life didn’t gain its reputation as the greatest Christmas film until thirty years after its release date. Rather than heralded as the greatest horror film ever made, The Shining earned Stanley Kubrick a Razzie nomination for Worst Director. Blade Runner and The Thing flopped upon release, struggling to be heard over the public’s squeals of affection for ET: The Extra Terrestrial.
However, some films instantly earn a reputation. Delivered to the world fully formed, they gain great box office receipts, critical admiration, and a cult of crazed fans intent on delving into a new cinematic world. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is one of those films. The coolest independent film since Pulp Fiction? Quite possibly. The most stylish film of the 00’s? Most probably. The defining cult film of the decade so far? Undoubtedly.
Hard to imagine, but when Drive was released, Albert Brooks and Ron “Hellboy’ Perlman were probably the biggest names involved. Director Nicolas Winding Refn was hugely popular in his native Denmark for the successful Pusher trilogy, but unknown in the USA; Bronson barely scratched the surface in America despite a successful U.K. release, while Fear X and Valhalla Rising were huge flops. Ryan Gosling was still a rising star, better known for sappy 2004 romance The Notebook over indie films like Blue Valentine or Lars and the Real Girl. Coming off an Oscar nomination for An Education, Carey Mulligan was only just starting to reach the A-list.
Successful on the small screen, Christina Hendricks and Bryan Cranston had never really made an impact on the big screen. Despite earning multiple Emmy nominations, Hendricks only had a handful of small credits to her name, while Cranston was too focused on winning Best Actor awards for his unforgettable performance in Breaking Bad to make features. It’s no secret to learn the cast of Drive went on to even bigger things, but the biggest surprise was unknown Oscar Isaac; two years after Drive’s release, he scored the lead in Inside Llewyn Davis, earning major award buzz. Two years after that, he was in Star Wars.
It’s the feeling of young, hungry talent breaking out that gives Drive such a powerful sense of energy and style. Refn has one of the greatest eyes in cinema (his biggest criticism is that he’s all style, no substance) and from the opening getaway sequence, it’s clear you’re in the hands of someone who knows how to make a lasting image, especially when working with Hossein Amini’s powerful script. One of the slickest action sequences in recent memory starts slowly as Gosling’s unnamed driver gives instructions down the phone; his employers have just five minutes, and then he’s gone. We see what he means when he sits waiting outside a factory, a robbery still in progress. Tension rises as the crooks take longer and longer to get out. As soon as they step foot into the car, Gosling drives.
In a way, it’s a cruel tease, as no other scene offers the same level of thrills. There are short car chases, violent episodes, and blasts of gunfire, but these are usually shot in glacial slow motion, witnessed from afar, or so gritty and unpleasant they cease to offer the same pleasures. Take the central pawn shop heist; rather than seeing the robbery, we stay with Driver, impatiently waiting in the car. When one of the robbers is shot and killed, it’s quick and brutal. When Driver is chased by a rival gangster, it takes two minutes to outmanoeuvre him and drive away. Refn could be the world’s greatest action director, but he simply isn’t interested.
Despite essentially being advertised as ‘The Fast and Furious’, Drive’s first half is a rather charming love story, as Gosling slowly falls for single parent and neighbour Irene (Mulligan, totally charming). Stripping down the conversation to a bare minimum (a technique Refn took further on his follow-up, Only God Forgives), long sections of Drive are devoted to Gosling and Mulligan staring at each other, occasionally interrupted by appearances from Driver’s mechanic boss Shannon (Cranston, doing sleazy and familial like nobody else can) and intimidating gangster Bernie (Brooks, giving the performance of his career). The only driving comes from Gosling and Mulligan’s cruise to the tune of College feat. Electric Youth’s ‘A Real Hero’, one of the many excellent synth pop tracks featured on the soundtrack.
The film turns on its head once Oscar Isaac appears as Irene’s ex-con husband. Taking what could have been a cliché supporting role and making him a sympathetic father, Isaac gives a minor breakout performance and kicks the film’s plot into action. Asking Driver to assist a pawn shop robbery, everything goes wrong when Isaac is shot and killed, leaving Driver with a shady accomplice (Hendricks) and a million dollars in cash, stolen from Nino (Ron Perlman, hilariously angry), an accomplice of Bernie’s. Drive soon becomes a hellish descent into brutal violence and tragically avoidable deaths.
Re-watching Drive, I was struck by its strange sadness and poignancy. The first half, dedicated to a sweet, mostly silent romance, may occasionally drag but it only emphasises the crushing fate of Driver. Put on the hit list for stealing a million dollars (despite having no interest in the money and trying to give it back), he’s forced to fight, kill, threaten, and, worst of all, reveal his dark side to Irene in the most stomach-churningly violent scene of the film.
Paying homage to Gaspar Noe’s shocking Irreversible, Refn places Driver and Irene in their building’s elevator next to a hitman sent by Nino. Mixing tenderness and brutality, Driver kisses Irene, knowing this will be their goodbye, before stomping on the hitman’s head. The scene is jaw dropping in how unexpected and genuinely tough to watch it is, amplified by Gosling’s performance playing Driver as an innocent man transforming into a werewolf. Refn is notorious for his love of violence and gore, but it’s never been put to better use than Drive’s elevator scene.
Once Driver has murdered a hitman with his bare hands and left Irene and his old life behind,Drive has nowhere to go but down as Driver takes on Bernie and Nino on his own. Refn still refuses to embrace any genre conventions; there’s no heroic one-man army shots, no protracted shootouts, no audience-satisfying villain deaths. Instead, the film’s climax is nihilistic, and tragic for all.
As perfectly played by Albert Brooks, Bernie is a gangster who’s happiest when keeping his hands clean, so his graphic murder of Shannon feels mournful and bitter. Nino’s a fifty-year-old schlub who wants to be taken seriously, so watching Driver (wearing an eerie prosthetic mask as he embraces the role of the killer) drown him in the sea hardly raises a cheer from the audience. Even the final scene, Driver and Bernie’s big confrontation, is anti-climactic as Refn cuts back and forth between the two negotiating at a dinner table and the short but violent confrontation they have afterwards. Drive ultimately ends on a melancholic, poetic note as we see Irene knocking on Driver’s door, intercut with a now bleeding Driver pulling away and driving off into the sunset, never to see her again.
While many assumed Drive would be a film about robberies, getaway drivers, and brutal criminals, Nicolas Winding Refn isn’t interested in conventional genre films. As proven by his follow-up films, 2013’s divisive Only God Forgives and this year’s crazy The Neon Demon, Refn enjoys slick visuals, icy cool characters, and ultraviolence, something Drive has in overwhelming amounts. So why did Drive become a cult sensation, while his later films failed miserably at the box office?
Refn is the king of cool, but Drive is about so much more than retro style. The story is stripped down and taut as a drum, mixing arthouse pacing with satisfying set pieces. Made up of young stars on the verge of a breakthrough (Gosling, Mulligan, Isaac), established TV veterans (Cranston, Hendricks) and legends of the film industry (Brooks, Perlman), the cast work effortlessly to do justice to Amini’s unconventional script. Refn is working with the best and working at his best, creating a film that transcends its genre to become a beautifully shot, written, and performed miracle of a film. When it was released in 2011, there was nothing else like it. Five years on, Drive still seem untouchable.
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