Nicholas Winding Refn again brings an art-house sensibility for emptiness to genre cinema's predilection for craft and smooth surfaces in the tight thriller, Drive. A small story (adapted from a James Sallis novella) and a small production are offset by the ‘scope frame’s extensive, vibrant use negative space, big empty swathes of the screen used for popping shapes of color and light. There is more negative space then there are characters in the film, and that piercing anti-content re-invests the blank fatalism of Drive’s few people with a further emptiness, as if their vacant stares project out of their eyes pure, vacuous graphic abstractions.
A mostly silent Ryan Gosling plays a taciturn driving expert—he works as a mechanic, stunt car driver, and a part-time driver for heists—who falls, in a minimally emoting way (twists of a smile, unusual amounts of staring attention), for his cute neighbor (Casey Mulligan). Their respite of fierce stares loaded with intent and no meaning is short before the driver, always unnamed (as in Walter Hill's masterpiece, The Driver), inevitably becomes entwined in something shady, in this case her husband’s shady background, which requires our man of restraint to become a man of violence.
But onward from the conventions—L.A.’s suburban clutter replaces the volcanic, empty Nordic landscapes of Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, but the same social, human, and political emptiness of that imagistically stunning digital film is retained in this new setting by those who move through it. Few films released this year have used color or the widescreen so well, the latter calling back to the sharp craft of Japanese studio genre masters of the 1960s, finding flares and geometries that please and complete (or incomplete) the cinema frame. But, in Drive, to what purpose other than to carve with precision fat free comic book imagery?
The film has a neo-Melvillean quality in its restrained acting, its uncompromising people-just-doing-their-job, its mise-en-scène dragged out of the soul of its hero. Yet it is also evacuated of the forces that drive Jean-Pierre’s lonely criminals, and what is dragged out of Drive’s soul is a near sublime absence. The film is clearly inspired by silent, lonely driving through the nocturnal streets of Los Angeles—making it a strong double feature with Michael Mann’s Collateral—only this driving state of mind is that of a sociopath whose physical beauty and predictable restraint (and later, predictable lack of it) are matching analogs to the film’s pure, beautifully controlled surface. The zen calm of this night cruise is the calm of the soulless.