In this unofficial prequel to Blade Runner Ryan Gosling plays an early replicant model who yearns to be human. He’s a machine programmed as part stunt man, part mechanic and part getaway driver – a being who is at one with the cars he is almost indistinguishable from. When he wears a prosthetic mask he may as well be exchanging one blank face for another. Known simply as Driver, his programming is threatened when he begins to develop empathy after meeting Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. After years of observing humanity, the feelings of love that have been awakened within Driver have lead him to compute that he can join the human race by becoming part of a family as a husband and father. Despite receiving support from his friend and manager Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who is Geppetto to his Pinocchio, Driver soon gets in the way of far more powerful forces who prefer their machines to remain subservient. While not yet a fully formed person, Driver responds violently, the only way his programming allows him to.
That’s one way to read Drive. The far more conventional way is to see it as a slick neo noir film about a loner who gets on the wrong side of local mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) while trying to help a woman he has fallen in love with. He’s a combination of one of Paul Schrader’s lonely men and the Man With No Name, with a few tendencies borrowed from the pixelated protagonists of the Grand Theft Auto gaming franchise. After Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising (2009), Drive is the third film in a row by director Nicolas Winding Refn that explores violent lone men. While the previous two films featured lead characters who embraced their capacity for violence, Driver wants something more.
While the title Drive obviously reflects Driver’s extraordinary prowess behind the wheel, it also indicates that the film is about what drives him. Prior to meeting Irene he merely exists, but afterwards his life has purpose leading him to put everything at risk. So in classic film noir style Irene is the cause of his undoing, but only in the sense that she awakens the humanity within him that for whatever reason was long dormant. He becomes driven by the need to see that Irene is protected and provided for. She doesn’t seduce him nor is he driven by sexual desire. The film explicitly depicts the attraction between them as being played out through him adopting the domestic role of father and husband, often with the lyrics ‘And you have proved to be a real human being and a real hero’ playing on the soundtrack.
Stylistically Drive is a triumph of minimalist cool, reflecting the focus and precision Driver brings to everything he does. The major ‘fault’ with the film is that the opening sequence, depicting Driver at work as a getaway driver, is such a brilliant piece of intense and visceral cinema that there is no way for the rest of the film to live up to it. However, it comes pretty close with the first part of the film evoking 1980s crimes thrillers by Michael Mann and William Friedkin, before the graphic and almost dreamlike violence in the second half of the film brings to mind some of Sam Peckinpah’s later films. The result is a gorgeous fusion of pulp genre cinema with an almost abstract approach to characterisation. The 1980s inspired synthesiser heavy dream-pop soundtrack is just an added bonus.