A common assessment of Drive made by fans and detractors alike is that its style, while eminently cool and even marvelous to behold, ultimately serves to distract from a lack of depth. A more accurate way of putting it would be to say that the sheen of Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-noir is so intoxicating as to make the dark impulses that went into making it seem moot—even though they betray a distinct worldview that’s no less stark and eccentric than the film it birthed. All the synth-pop, hot-pink lettering, scorpion jackets, and ultra-violence of L.A.‘s backstreets which may appear to speak for themselves as little more than objects of ogling in fact comprise a darkly alluring milieu dreamt up by a filmmaker whose fantasies and delusions are as grim as they are aesthetically vivacious. Refn fancies Drive something of a fairy tale, but it’s ultimately more of a fever dream which at times borders on the surreal—the inexplicable bright lights, the cartoonish violence. As a vision of Los Angeles with overtones of dread it’s preceded by both Heat and Mulholland Drive; as a glossy pastiche of too many disparate aesthetic elements to count it’s unrivaled.
If 2011 may be thought of as a year of art-house action, then consider Drive the fulfillment of this recent trend’s potential. The first sequence alone is a symphony unto itself, consisting of 10 of the most tightly controlled minutes of cinema in years. At no point during this, the most quietly bravura display of actual driving in the entire film, is the nameless Driver (Ryan Gosling) not in a position of the utmost control. He synchronizes his actions with those of an NBA game on the radio, calms his nerves by chewing on a toothpick, and never speaks a single word. In the backseat, his masked customers look on in silent, nervous awe. We know immediately that this is a man who knows exactly what he’s doing and is content to let his talent speak for itself. Ditto Refn, as what’s meant to be a driving clinic is also a directorial one that alone justifies the directing prize he won last year Cannes. For as honed as it is, the film never feels stifled or clinical, but rather teeming with liveliness in the form of visual and aural bliss.
The music in particular is of special note. Drive is often a quiet experience, especially as regards the burgeoning romance between Driver and Irene (Carey Mulligan). Endlessly, even frustratingly laconic, Gosling’s character is a man of action rather than words: Kicking a man’s face in as Irene watches in horror is an instinctive response as well as an expression of his nascent devotion; taking a hammer to another man’s hand is a sign not to trifle with Irene’s young son. Driver’s menace, like that of the film proper, is expressed not through loud machismo, but in hushed tones and direct statements whose calm delivery only makes them more chilling. The sometimes syrupy pop songs that play over these scenes becomes the language by which the blanks left by his—and, to a lesser extent, her—long silences are filled, none of them more pointed than “Real Hero” by College. “And you have proved to be/A real human being and a real hero” is the line most often repeated, and it’s a loaded one: If Driver sometimes seems a cipher, it’s in service of his relationship with Irene. His brief time with Irene is what sculpts him into a fleshed-out being with purpose, a change he himself struggles to verbally express. The song’s chorus is nothing if not direct, but this is to be expected from a film that deals in extremes. (Refn, upon first meeting with Gosling to discuss the project, is said to have broken out in tears while listening to an REO Speedwagon song in the actor’s car; an appreciation of trashy pop culture has proven crucial to his creative process.)
That we see this from such a detached point of view as Driver’s only increases the extent to which we’re meant to be mindful and wary of his surroundings. An updated Man with No Name, Driver has no past we’re made privy to, no friends or acquaintances beyond the few we see on screen, and certainly no catchphrase. This lack of identity is manifested physically by a featureless latex mask he dons late in the film as both a practical means of avoiding detection and a symbolic acceptance of his dual role of avenger-protector. Moments of quiet tension are punctuated by shotgun blasts, and conflicted characters whose troubled dealings seem the starting point for weepy resolution meet swift, brutal ends. This is the world as Drive sees it, and those who don’t become one of the sharks end up chum in a bucket. Garish lights and humming engines are guides through the darkness, not to mention distractions from the fact that the prospect of sunlight brings with it little hope of anything new or good. The first 45 minutes of this dark tour are surprisingly sedate, but the violence, when it finally arrives—and oh, does it arrive—is so shockingly over the top as to immediately make that slow buildup feel like a distant memory. Drive embraces and even takes comfort in the misery wrought by its characters’ dealings with one another, content to accentuate the beauty in it rather than the horror.
It should go without saying that the visual transfer of a film like Drive is especially important, and luckily Sony doesn't disappoint. The neon lights, blood spatter, and grimy Los Angeles streets are all vividly rendered on this Blu-ray, as are certain less eye-grabbing details: Driver's austere apartment, for instance, and Irene's work uniform. No complaints on the audio front either, as both the synth-heavy pop ballads and Cliff Martinez's electronic score are as bass-laden and moody as ever.
A lack of audio commentary is always a damnable offense on a home-video release of a recent film, but the five featurettes included on this Blu-ray, which run roughly an hour in total, are fairly interesting on their own. A nearly half-hour-long interview with Nicolas Winding Refn is by far the most worthwhile, as much of the information he divulges is similar to what would be discussed on a commentary track, but overall this extras package is on the thin side. Worst of all, perhaps, is the box art, which is not only contrary to the film's aesthetic but also simply bad. Anyone who buys this Blu-ray would do well to download this printable alternative courtesy of Signalnoise.
Drive embraces and even takes comfort in the misery wrought by its characters' dealings with one another, content to accentuate the beauty in it rather than the horror.