(Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
The film Drive reminded me of most is Stephen Soderbergh's Out of Sight. Not because they have anything at all in common in terms of story or style, mood or look. They don't. But because they are adaptations of fairly strong crime novels - in this case, of James Sallis' pared-down, hypnotically taut getaway-Noir story - which are elevated somewhat by directors with a thrilling sense of the cinematic.
Even then, elevated may not be quite the right word. Drive is a cracking genre entertainment, even if much of it is slightly over-familiar. The two films it has been most regularly compared with, Michael Mann's Thief and Walter Hill's The Driver, are both unavoidable points of reference. Just like Refn's film, each is a Neo-noir focusing on an existential romantic loner forced to choose whether to follow their code or discard it when an emotional attachment becomes a dangerous liability. But where Mann articulates the choice and makes it explicit and Hill turns it almost abstract while giving his world some of the grit and complexity of real life through a few characters and details, Refn instead opts to emphasise only the surface of his heroes situation. This is a movie movie through and through, and so we intuit that Goslings unnamed "Driver" follows some unspoken code, because we have seen similar characters do the same in similar films. This is pop-existentialism, without the seriousness or earnest ambition of Mann or Hill. For many, that can only be a good thing, for it makes Drive an easily accessible, narratively unpretentious film.
The simplicity of the set-up, the fairy-tale archetypes and the satisfyingly predictable genre beats give Refn time to focus on the style, and he has become a fine stylist. From the first scene, a forensically procedural account of the Driver at work, the visceral joy of driving is vividly present, and the sense of Los Angeles as seen through European eyes provides a pungent sort of cool which is only amplified by the 80s-esque electro pop on the soundtrack and Cliff Martinez's atmospheric score. Refn is excellent on the small, quiet moments, lingering just enough on Gosling and Mulligan during their (wordless) moony growing intimacy to let it register.
This all means that when violence intrudes into the story in the second half, it does so with a savage kick, and the shocking gore that follows - head-stampings, eye-stabbings, face-shootings - is all executed with near-unbearable power.
Gosling is all studied cool and charisma, suggesting just enough interior life to make it work, Mulligan may be slighly miscast but gets though on that lovely face and some clinging innocence, while stalwarts like Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston offer excellent work in full-colour character parts. The stand-out performer, however, is Albert Brooks, frightening and believably cynical as a movie producer turned gangster.
Oddly, Brooks was also cast against type in Out of Sight, in which he also excelled.
Just like that film, Drive emerges as a dazzlingly executed piece of pure genre pleasure, and another fascinating cornerstone in Refn's growing career.