Directed by Nicolas Refn, and staring Ryan Gosling, Drive is an archetypal ‘good-bad’ film; everything that is good about it is perfectly weighted against just as many things that are bad. Let’s start off with the good: as a generic-on-paper heist film, for what it is, the plot of Drive is surprisingly engaging. We’ve seen films about bungled robberies before (was there ever a heist movie where everything went according to plan?), but what sets this film apart from the rest is the way the narrative is fed to you. There is the anticipation before the bit hit, there is the consequence after, but rarely anything in between: we do not get to see the moment where the gun is fired; nor do we see the cashier pleading for his life. Refn has commendably created a picture in which actions in themselves are shown to be fleeting and immaterial, and for good reason: it’s our plans that take up most of our time, and the consequences we must live with after.
For a film which takes such care unfolding its scenes, it’s perhaps surprising that so little care has been taken with plot-line itself. This is where it starts to get ‘bad’. We might accept that a get away driver also works as a stunt man (just), but to ask us to believe that a stunt-driving, ram-raiding, Rodney Trotter lookalike also works part-time as car mechanic for, apparently, below minimum wage is beginning to stretch it. There is also a number of question marks hanging over the past-histories of supporting cast: Carey Mulligan’s well-bred character looks like the last person on earth to date a Hispanic gang-banger, and the gang-banger himself looks like the first person who’d hit Gosling on finding him at his home ‘entertaining’ his wife. Non the less, in the world of Drive, smart women who are improbably stupid and bad boys who are implausibly sweet are par for the course.
For every down in Refn’s film however, there is a up: while there are enough plot anomalies in Drive to fill a multi-story carpark, the acting somehow makes it, if not forgiveable, at least forgettable. As the multi-tasking wheel-man, Gosling gives a performance which is far less Paul Newman or Vin Diesel and much more Rainman or Travis Bickle. The man with his foot on the pedal is unnervingly attuned to his vehicle of gears and axils, but that’s because he’s virtually a machine himself. In the lighter moments there’s also the aura of Knight Rider suffusing Gosling’s auto-mensch performance, but only in a world where Michael Knight wears panties and keeps a box of earlobes in his glove compartment. Aside from the brilliant female lead, the other stand out role is Albert Brooks as the Driver’s wheeling-dealing boss; putting in a concerted effort to convey corruption and naivety at once; he almost steals the show.
Now onto the horrible bits. Where the pacing and acting in Drive appear to serve a higher purpose (to transcend the usual heist-bungler cliches), the temptations of the editing suite ultimately over-ignites the project into a stall. Electro-pop songs and artificial colour casts might sit happily alongside a edgy sci-fi outing, but here the effect is all wrong: the central character may behave a machine, this is not what he aspires to be – as a love interest and surrogate father our driver is desperately striving to be human, his mannerisms are robotic, but his destination is in fact organic. If the purpose of any film-score is to reflect the drive of the main character, there is then no point romanticising Driver’s affinity for machines through Numan-esque synth washes. Strings and woodwind would be far closer to the mark.
With so much in Drive that is both equally good and equally bad, it is perhaps tempting to say that say that, overall, Refn’s picture averages out as “mediocre”. But like a pair of scales perfectly weighted in either direction, the effect here is so balanced that it is difficult to find the will to shrug or even let out a sigh. Assuming it ever makes it to the production stage, it may fall on Drive’s sequel to upset the balance and producing something more compelling.