This film has absolutely no business being this good.
The marketing campaign makes Drive look like a Fast and Furious knockoff. Cars? Check. Heists? Check. Gangsters? Check.
Forget all that. Drive is an LA fever dream, a collision of the present with 1987’s collective unconscious. What is the film about? This picture tells you exactly what it’s about: looking behind you to move forward. The stasis that precedes the explosion.
The film is about an unnamed part-time Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic, who drives getaway cars for heists at night. But this is not a film about high speed car chases and explosive action. The driver is a study in self-control. Every word, movement and action is measured, deliberate, and almost ponderous. While his stunt driving is fast and wild, as the getaway car driver, driving is a matter of precision and planning. Everything is planned in advance, the routes rehearsed, the traffic light timing memorized. He escapes crime scenes by hiding in plain sight, melting into the animal that is Los Angeles traffic.
And Los Angeles plays a big part in this movie, but it is not the Los Angeles of Fast and Furious or of Michael Mann. Drive is set in David Lynch’s LA–in the spaces between the famous places. Drive is LA viewed obliquely, where the familiar becomes either transcendent or grotesque. For example, you might expect that a film about heists and cars would include a scene in the iconic LA River. After all, nearly every action film set in LA has had a pivotal car chase scene there: Terminator 2, Gone in 60 Seconds, Transformers and Transformers 2, Grease, Chinatown, and The Italian Job just to name a few. But the drive along the LA River in Drive is not a chase. It is literally a carefree afternoon drive. Only it ends someplace completely unexpected, where the concrete river bed ends abruptly, interrupted by an unexpected but beautiful oasis:
This is the wild reclaiming the geography: where man built a river, nature built a dam. It’s one of many examples in Drive of reality unexpectedly interrupting Hollywood cliches in much the same way as the severed ear interrupting the hackneyed establishing shot of idyllic suburbia in Blue Velvet.
The fantastic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez contributes to the haunting, eerie, Lynchian tone of the film, as does the score by Angelo Badalamenti (who scored a number of Lynch’s films). In a way, we are listening in on the driver’s car stereo. The music is part of the storytelling, and if you simply let it wash over you, you are missing out.
But what makes the film particularly compelling is its transgressive nature. Like many of his contemporaries in Europe, Drive‘s director Nicolas Winding Refn makes a point to show the audience the human body as an object rather than as a person. It isn’t sufficient to shoot someone in the head off-camera and scatter some drops of blood on the wall. No, Refn patiently shows us the head exploding, the blood sloshing everywhere and soaking everything. In this regard, Refn is like Michael Haenke. For this crop of European directors, people exist only in emotions and dialogue, but bodies aren’t people. Bodies are props made of meat to be bashed and broken and bloodied unapologetically. By showing us explicit violence rather than giving us Hollywood-style violence in a film where the main character’s job is to create Hollywood violence, Refn is depriving the audience of the titillation that audiences get during the gunfights or car chases. Refn has made Hollywood violence repulsive again. But for the audience, is that good or bad?
This makes me wonder if the marketing campaign, which presents the movie as something of an standard action film, was deliberately misleading. I wonder if Refn lured audiences in with the implied promise of phony violence that would be exciting and kinetic, only to stun them with arresting and realistic violence. When there’s blood, it splatters everywhere and on everyone, mostly the audience.
I’ll end this now to avoid spoilers, but I will add that if Drive has a failing, it is the ending, in which the director took the road most traveled by. But like many of David Lynch’s films, the story in Drive isn’t meant to be as captivating or impressive as it’s telling. The end of the road isn’t as important as the journey, and the sights and sounds along the way.