A cheesy, synth-heavy song plays over the credits at the end of Drive. With dreamy, hushed sincerity, it proclaims that the central character of the film has proved himself to be a ‘real human being’ and a ‘real hero’. This after we’ve seen him smash heads to smithereens, slap women across the face and blow people away with firearms. He’s neither of these things.
I’m not sure whether the director is taking the piss with this song or whether he’s sincere. Either way it doesn’t really affect my opinion of the film. Whether its a sincere revenge thriller or a snarky, tongue in cheek shoot-’em-up, Drive is gloriously entertaining.
Who’d have thought that a hipster could make such a ruthless killing machine? Because, yes, that’s what Ryan Gosling’s character is. With his vacant eyes, a smile that barely registers on his lips and a toothpick in his mouth, he seems too cool for school. It’s hard to believe that he could muster up enthusiasm for anything. But eventually a few cracks appear.
Robot-hipster Gosling’s world of detached brooding is infiltrated by a pretty neighbour in his apartment building. She has a young son and Gosling immediately takes to them. Pretty soon he’s hanging out in their flat and fixing their car (Gosling plays a mechanic who moonlights as a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals). He even manages to produce a smile that shows a couple of teeth.
What I found pleasing about the beginning of the film is that it takes its time. While the atmosphere of the movie is very 80s, the pace in the opening half is very 70s. For a film about driving, no one is in a rush - this movie is going to take the scenic route and try and develop the characters a little bit. Not that there’s really any amazing dialogue in this movie. This is a film more about looks, gestures and atmosphere. Quite often it’s the music that does the talking. And this suits me fine.
What works for me, though, doesn’t work for everyone. In the row ahead of me, I could sense impatience. Indeed, there was even outright mockery. By the time Gosling had coyly grinned for the thirty second time, I could hear sniggers. But then when the second half of the film hit and all hell broke loose, those people quickly shut the fuck up.
But let’s wind back to the beginning of the film. The opening is amazing. Gosling’s character is hired as the getaway driver for an armed robbery. He sets out his terms and then we see him in action. You kind of expect a regular car chase, full of frenzied action. Instead you have a wonderfully tense game of cat and mouse. Gosling doesn’t just hit the accelerator and try and outrun the cops, he uses other cars and underpasses to hide out and he uses his smarts to avoid getting caught. One of the best moments is when he’s face to face with some cops at a traffic light. He has a radio receiver and he knows that he’s been identified. But the cops don’t know that he knows. So Gosling doesn’t crack and only speeds away once the light turns green. It’s really amazing how tense and how thrilling such a minimalist sequence can be.
The only other car chase is more traditional. It’s flat out with screeching tires and twisted metal. But before it can really develop, it’s violently over. It’s a good sequence but it pales beside the opener.
Let’s get back to what it was that shocked people so much. First of all, there was the fact that Christina Hendricks gets shot at point blank range by a shotgun. But the scene that produced audible gasps was the one where Gosling smashes a crook’s hand with a hammer and then threatens to hammer a bullet into his head. At this point all the muttering and snickering was gone. ‘But I thought he was a harmless, borderline retarded hipster!’ you could almost hear them think.
It’s quite an amazing U-turn that the film makes. The film transforms from a sappy indie flick into extreme grindhouse. I mean, in the opening half you’re watching Ryan Gosling seducing Carey Mulligan by driving through storm drains as retro music plays and the sun flares on the camera lens. We’re in 80s romantic movie territory. And then thirty or forty minutes later you’re watching Ryan Gosling literally smashing someone’s head to pieces.
This scene is the most extreme in the movie. But it’s preceded by a long, drippy kiss. You see, some mob guys are after Gosling and one of them gets into the same elevator as Gosling and Mulligan. As a distraction, Gosling kisses Mulligan. The kiss, in slow-motion naturally, goes on for ages. But then when its over, Gosling beats the heavy to death and smashes his face in. By the time he’s stamped on the guy’s head for the tenth time, you think he’s being more than a bit excessive. But then he continues doing it...while his girl backs into the corner. It’s like Dirty Dancing turns into Irreversible. And it’s probably the one scene that doesn’t really work. I kept on thinking that this was a stupid distraction. The mob guy should have just shot him in the back of the head as he was playing tonsil hockey with his wee delicate flower. And what about poor Mulligan? The most romantic moment of her life turns into a horror scene. It’s one thing for a man to protect his woman, but something else to turn a man’s head into pate. You’re going to think twice before you go out on twinkly afternoon drives with autistic hipsters, aren’t you?
But again, it’s hard to know how to take the scene. Is it being played straight or does it have another intent? Is Gosling being portrayed as a real human being and a real hero, or is he being portrayed as a stone cold psycho? I like the fact that you don’t really know for sure.
A more successful sequence is the hit that Gosling makes on Ron Perlman’s small time crime boss. Perlman has been trying to take Gosling out, so Gosling exacts revenge. Bizarrely scored to an operatic ballad, Perlman parties in his crappy pizzeria with some fellow crooks. Through the glass in the door you see Gosling approach...wearing a rubber mask - the type of mask that stunt drivers wear to look more like the actor they’re doubling for and which also (I think) protect them from fire. It’s a weird, eerie image (he looks like part Octavio the clown in Scarface and part Michael Myers) and I immediately thought that Gosling was going to torch the building with all the crooks in it. Colour me slightly disappointed then when he doesn’t do this.
But then, still wearing the mask, Gosling follows Perlman’s car. He rams into it and then disappears from the scene. Perlman is angry and confused but before he can do anything, Gosling comes back and rams the car off the side of an embankment. Somehow Perlman survives the crash and staggers towards a beach. We then have the eerie image of the masked driver stalking his prey and silently drowning him. It’s like something out of a horror film and it works magnificently.
Have I mentioned yet that the main villain is played by Albert Brooks? This piece of casting works tremendously as you’re certainly not expecting him to stab people to death with forks or bleed people dry with cutthroat razors. But Brooks causes carnage and creates a villain you’re eager to see become the victim of hipstercide. Gosling accommodates him on this point but not before he takes a knife to the gut.
One of the final images of the film is the shadow of the two men stabbing one another. Gosling is perhaps the righteous reflection of this psychopath? This may or may not be true, as both men are almost equally nuts, but the final song certainly wants to point out Gosling’s heroism. ‘You’ve proved yourself to be a real human being and a real hero.’
The end is almost like something out of the TV series of The Incredible Hulk. Carey Mulligan’s world has been turned upside down by a man with no name and then he leaves town to continue his nomadic existence. However, Gosling is too cool to thumb a lift as tearful piano music plays. Instead he roams the lonely highways as some obscure band does a Giorgio Moroder impression. Whose town and whose life will he turn upside down next?
PS - The film deserves extra points for the coolest aerial shots of LA’s skyline and highways since The Rock’s entrance video at No Way Out. (Fuck me, I’m a nerd.)