“Globalization” has come to have several different connotations, and among them, I would like to suggest that it include a new trendy tendency for art-house European filmmakers to make Hollywood movies, and vice-versa. The mashup of styles and techniques has been noticeable a lot lately, what with Oscar winner “The Artist” being the creation of French director Michel Hazanavicius and America’s own Martin Scorsese venturing away from his comfort zone of psychotic violence by coming out with the distinctly Parisian “Hugo.”
And now “Drive,” by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, proffers glorious Hollywood-style action fare crammed with fast cars, a sweet blonde girl, suitcases full of cash and guns galore. Once upon a time in the 1980s, this sort of thing was on every theater menu, and you got to savor the whole thing with a huge, sugary soda and gut-punchingly bad popcorn. Those were the days.
Indeed, “Drive” reeks of retro stylings, but Winding Refn (famed for the “Pusher” trilogy and “Bronson”) never makes that an issue or plays upon the themes. He’s far too subtle. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival (where it won Winding Refn the Best Director Award), he said that much of the film was an ode to the American movies he used to watch on TV as a kid, among them “Sixteen Candles” and “Dirty Harry” — and sure enough, memories of both rise up on the screen like faint ghosts.
But he never does anything as brazen as pay outright tributes. “Drive” is, quite simply, incredibly cool; and though it feels like a Hollywood movie, the way Winding Refn goes about instilling the frames with absolute discipline and muting his own personality in the process speaks of a distinctly European attitude.
That same attitude is seen in Ryan Gosling’s performance as a man known only as “The Driver.” Working by day as an L.A. stunt man and moonlighting as a getaway driver by night, The Driver isn’t one to talk or drink or seek female company. Still, he forges a shy friendship with his next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos).
The Driver and the boy share a lot of time on Irene’s couch watching TV, which it should be noted, is not on a flat-screen. The interior schemes of the apartments are so discount vintage it makes you want to weep with nostalgia — the kind of digs where you’d expect to hear strains of Tom Waits on vinyl, see plastic ashtrays on which cigarettes smolder, or maybe meet Isabella Rossellini in “Blue Velvet” wearing a tattered bathrobe.
The film’s fondness for a bygone era aptly extends to its cars; The Driver’s choice of vehicle is a streamlined Chevy Impala that screams “eco-enemy” with every hair-raising skid. And though it’s set in the present day, The Driver never has to share the freeway with legions of hybrid cars toting toddlers who own iPads. In one unbelievable scene, The Driver takes Irene and Benicio for a spin, and the kid rides up front on his mother’s knees instead of being incarcerated in a plastic car seat way in the back. Such an escapade rates as sheer fairy tale.
As for the violence, it takes you back to a time when prop people stood on movie sets carrying sacks full of red slime, to be splattered as much as possible, whenever. However, Winding Refn’s deployment of gore is less gory than stylish — almost like seeing “Seven Samurai” in particularly refined color tones.
The Driver is a great one for planning and choreographing his movements (as a stunt driver, this is important), and strategy is Winding Refn’s watchword as well. What seems at first glance a haphazard sequence of brute force and mayhem is actually intricately patterned, as precise as an Italian suit.
Witness the scene where The Driver shyly declares his feelings to Irene in an elevator — a perfectly orchestrated love scene that morphs mere seconds later into a killing spree that explodes with blood. It’s definitely one that will have film students dissecting the sequence frame by frame for hours on end.
After watching “Drive,” one fact will stare at you in the face: Driving used to seem more fun and fraught with romance. Now it’s a matter of sitting in traffic while one texts furtively or sips coffee endlessly from a cup holder and sits some more. Oh well, at least there’s the satisfaction of muttering, “Only in the movies.”