This movie feels perfect: like an elegant solution to a complex math problem. The fine-tuned performances, precise camera work, and soundtrack all work in total harmony, creating an atmosphere as cool and intriguing as its main character. Drive has little in the way of plot, or even driving, for that matter, and registers mostly as an exercise in creating mood. The dominant air, placidity, is a seemingly peculiar choice because the film is ostensibly about movement. But I think Refn chose this mood to place us in the mind of our calm, collected hero.
Gosling plays, “Kid”, “The Kid”, or “The Driver”, depending on who is addressing him: stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night. Our first glimpse of him is in a spare hotel room where, through a conversation with clients, he sets up the superficial premise of the film: “You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window.” His rules are simple, just like him. He is a man who needs only a few words to express himself. His intentions and desires lie on the surface, as if he has spent his solitary time (and he’s had a lot) in order to become zen-like; he has no need for deception, evasion (except for when it comes to pretty ladies in grocery stores), or maneuvering. Like a man at peace with himself and the rest of the world, he is above such characteristics. Refn paints The Kid quite well with a few actions, some extremely violent, and with a few tears. (Though if you don’t watch closely you might miss them.) As I said, The Kid is a simple guy, but he is also an intense one. His intensity comes not from intimidation, but from a rare clarity of mind. Because of this he never appears conflicted (this is suitable given his chosen professions), which lends the film its very steady center.
Depicting the center’s periphery is a camera traveling as slow and confidently as The Kid, usually preferring push-ins when it does so. The combination of an at-ease protagonist and stable camera occasionally give the impression of floating in space. (I swear the elevator scene seemed like the slowest slow-motion ever created.) The camera’s slow movements appear to represent the unhurried thoughts of The Kid; it slowly approaches a subject the way he does. Of course, the movie isn’t all shot in this fashion and finds the proper counterbalance in its excellent action scenes. There are two car chases and a few fights, but my favorite moment of tension is the elevator scene that displays a hard juxtaposition of stasis and movement. In this scene The Kid realizes there is a hit out on him and that he may not see his girl again. During a nice touch of impressionism, he calmly pushes her to the side and lays a kiss on her that lasts for an eternity. He then proceeds to stomp the mobsters head off with the most energy and ferociousness displayed in the film. For me, this scene always feels like a transformative moment for our hero, as if he just discovered some kind of truth about himself. It is in this one-sided cage match that he finds his drive: protect the girl.
The final layer on the film’s placid surface is a score by Cliff Martinez. It features a lot of droning synths adding to the still life nature of the film. Like the film’s other key elements, the score is a calming presence that makes the tense moments all the more gripping once they arrive. It is never overwhelming, sometimes barely noticeable, but still helps guide our thoughts and mood. Whereas the score barely registers, the soundtrack is comprised of the sweetest pop songs sure to stick on the inside of your brain. In addition, these tunes function in the exact opposite way of the score due to the lyrics that are sometimes closely related to the images on screen. I think of the soundtrack and the film’s hot-pink title and credits as complimentary. I can’t explain why, but both just work. Maybe it’s because both elements are a bit unusual, like our hero.
So, when our eyes and ears register stillness for most of the film, it really gives the action scenes a lot of pop (Like when that guy’s head pops off in the elevator, or when Blanche’s head is popped off with a shotgun.) When I recall the film in my mind those scenes take up a disproportionate amount of space because they are so striking. So when you really want your film to move an audience, sometimes the best thing you can do is slow way down.