After ten days of film festival, energy levels were dropping dangerously low on the Croisette. But Cannes received a massive adrenaline shot on Friday with Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, a slow-burning little potboiler of a thriller with an iconic lead performance by Ryan Gosling. On paper this looked like an odd festival selection. A small action film, that didn't look to have much underneath the hood. On screen it feels like it should be in some other festival altogether indeed, and it doesn't have much more depth than the puddles of blood the main character leaves behind. But the Lumière crowd ate it up all the same, gleefully.
Gosling plays an unnamed mechanic (simply referred to as 'Driver') who has a couple of driving jobs on the side. Stunt driver in Hollywood in the daytime, getaway driver for heist jobs at night. His boss and father figure Shannon (Bryan Cranston, best known for TV show Breaking Bad) even manages to get him the driving job on a newly formed racing team, funded by crime boss Bernie (a magnificent Albert Brooks). Driver is a stoic young man with nerves of steel, as is shown in the intense opening heist scene. With the police hot on his heels both on the ground and in the air, he manages to get out of the situation without flinching. This man can drive a car, that much is clear, and he knows the grid of L.A.'s streets like the back of his hand. We, on the other hand, are rarely given a glimpse into the motivations of the character, much like that other famous man-with-no-name character, with whom he also shares his moral ambiguity.
One day, Driver meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbour, on an elevator ride in their apartment building. When he later sees her again at the grocery store with her young son Benicio and a broken-down car, he offers to drive her home. One thing leads to another, and soon Driver is driving Irene to her waitressing job while her car is being repaired, and watching Benicio when needed. With her husband in jail, Irene and Driver do not get involved romantically, even if sparks fly. When the oddly named Standard is released from jail, Driver backs off and becomes a friend of the family. One night he finds Standard in the building's garage, bloodied and with a scared-to-death Benicio by his side. It turns out that Standard owes money to some gangsters, who threaten that Irene and the kid will be next. Driver agrees to help Standard on one last heist job so the man can pay off the debt, not knowing that this will lead him down a path of blood and violence that seemingly has no end.
And let me make this perfectly clear: from this point in the story the film turns very, very violent indeed. Until then, tension had been slowly building, but after the heist goes wrong (inevitably, as per usual in the genre), Winding Refn fires on all cylinders, and Driver shows that he is not only good at driving, but just as proficient at wielding a hammer and other assorted weapons. This is not a film for the squeamish and faint of heart, but the rest of the audience will be at the edge of their seats throughout the final forty-five minutes. There is one scene in an elevator that is especially brutal, and after its bloody end, the crowd at the Lumière went into rapturous applause. Partly as a way to let off steam, sure, but also because the film just went all out at that moment. It is one of those scenes that will be talked about for a long time, like the infamous teeth-on-the-curb scene in American History X.
From the very first frame, it is clear that this film is entrenched in the 70s and 80s. Gosling's Driver is a steely mixture of Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, both icons of earlier eras. Winding Refn borrows heavily from directors like Michael Mann and John Carpenter, as well as a few westerns here and there (see the Leone reference above). The brooding atmosphere, with a lot of the action taking place at night, the moodiness of the driving scenes (note how in the inside-the-car shots the rearview mirror always keeps one of the characters in sight), the dark sound design and synth-heavy score, even the vintage cars throw us back a couple of decades. And at the heart is a man out to keep those who are close to him safe at all costs (and that really means all costs here). Ryan Gosling turns in an iconic performance as the nameless man with no background. We are never keyed into Driver's motivations. He is a blank, almost a prop, but the audience can still identify with him and certainly root for him, even if he does not shy away from doing some very bad things and fighting dirty. Gosling plays him laconically, but turns the Gosling charm on where needed to win the audience over, without resorting to the mannerisms that slightly marred his performance in Blue Valentine (which played at Cannes last year). On the other hand, he also gives Driver a dangerous edge, which might make him even more attractive. Carey Mulligan is unfortunately not given much to work with, and with her wholesome looks she is miscast as a woman torn between two men who feel very much at place in this underbelly milieu, while she clearly does not. She is given a rather thankless damsel-in-distress role, and hers is certainly the weakest part of the script.
In the bad guy corner, Albert Brooks gives an excellent against-type performance as a pragmatic gangster. His Bernie Rose can be ruthless, but empathic at the same time. He turns violent almost out of necessity, not because he is pure evil. That would be more the role for Ron Perlman's Nino, Bernie's business partner. Bryan Cranston plays a fine mentor for Driver, and Mad Men's Christina Hendricks has a brief role in the robbery Standard and Driver set up.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn's career was built on violent films like the Pusher trilogy and Bronson. The young Dane truly knows how to turn the viewer's tolerance to the breaking point, but his distinct and stylized visuals give his films a certain artsy feel that probably led the festival to put this in competition. Drive will not win anything, but it surely provided the festival with a massive crowd-pleaser, something it has been a bit short on.