Some Reflections: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

by Srikanth Mantravadi


Drive is the moody crime drama I’ve been waiting to watch in a long time. It is essentially an anti-thriller although the trailers, for reasons that are not entirely unfathomable, seem to suggest otherwise. With its studied pace and long takes this movie conveys as much through mood as it does through dialogue. In fact Gosling, who is effortlessly terrific, hardly speaks. He just emotes by staying stoic in the face of, what at first seems like, a terribly botched heist but is in fact an insidious double cross. It reminded me of Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddar in terms of the deliberate pacing and treatment that grows on the viewers, grinds on the nerves and piles on the tension incrementally; something action flicks with fast cuts that are high on adrenaline and low on craft these days fail miserably at. Also the story becomes insignificant after a point of time although you would still want to know how it would end because of the here and now mesmeric unravelling of scenes. Somewhere in between is also a sweet little old world romance (with neighbour played by Carey Mulligan), built on respect and tentative warmth, but which seems destined to not end well.

The character development, of Gosling especially, is simply brilliant. It is established right at the start, through a breathtaking chase & escape, as to what kind of a character the nameless Gosling plays. He is not your regular getaway guy who will arrive in the meanest mean machine, hit the pedal & the nitrous(?), outrace the cops and speed away into the horizon. He arrives in the ubiquitous Chevy Impala, carefully tunes into the Police radio, moves around cautiously till the heat is reduced and makes a clean escape by parking in a stadium as soon as a game gets over & the crowd comes out. It is this intelligence that is usually lacking in the movies of this genre and even the little bit of wit and smartness that usually peeks out of a well planned chase sequence in such movies is quickly smothered by irrepressible machismo as if the former were some undesirable element that unintendedly walked into the script. Hell, in this movie even the gangsters kill each other with forks and surgical knives, that are carefully washed and placed in a jewel box later! It is not to say that there is no anger or angst in the characters. There is a blood curdling scene where Gosling crushes a henchman’s head by lashing at it repeatedly. But this is hardly a reflection of his strength or machismo as it is a reflection of his state of mind. And there are no slo-mo shots to exaggerate Gosling’s heroicness and brawn.   

The movie is populated with colourful characters, who mouth colourful abuses, as if to make up for the lack of exuberance from the main lead. However most of the times the camera is unwaveringly focussed on Gosling (or his car’s dashboard which is a character in itself and gets the second highest screen time)  who is as sensationally restrained and expressionless as Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. Yet his stony face manages to convey different emotions in different contexts – The ephemeral smile sometimes emanating warmth and sometimes riddled with irony.

Special mention needs to be made for the background score by Cliff Martinez and cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel – both very important cogs in a film like this are stunning; where the BGM heightens the tension and mood even in ordinary sequences, the cinematography is in the classic vein with emphasis on story telling than stylistic tropes and zany angles.

I haven’t read the book by James Sallis, so I can’t really say how good an adaptation this is. But purely as a standalone movie it is outstanding. Also Nicholas Winding is a director to watch out for (I have to go watch Valhalla Rising and the Pusher trilogy). It is tough to direct a movie like this that is so dependant on atmosphere and texture as opposed to a movie that tells its story through dialogues. More often than not movies like Drive have the onerous responsibility of creating an impression of being larger than a sum of its parts (or scenes) because the individual scenes don’t really count in the end as they do not stand out or jump at you. There are no look-at-me-I’m-so-thrilling or look-at-me-I’m-so-funny scenes. They are neither remarkable nor memorable. But they infinitesimally add up and lead to the inexorable rush in the end that comes from watching a movie like this. And it is here that the director succeeds, in my opinion.  

So finally all I can say is, Drive is a taut, engrossing, almost meditative crime drama that needs to be savoured and enjoyed.