The driver in Drive is just that, he drives. He has no past and even no name. One would guess prison was a part of his past but that is just a guess. The driver only has two distinguishing characteristics, he is extremely adept behind the wheel of a car and he wears a strikingly odd white jacket with an orange scorpion on the back. The scorpion’s meaning is somewhat explained and furthers a philosophical undercurrent in Drive which is not apparent in the previews.
The audience I saw Drive with on a late Saturday night opening weekend started to laugh at the screen and mock the actors, the direction, and the jacket. Their expectations did not match what was unfolding on the screen. They expected multiple car chases between the driver and the cops, backstabbing crooks, and action sequences just for the sake of action sequences. Well, those clichés are not here and it transforms what would have been just another Gone in 60 Seconds to a film which operates on a different, more introspective plane.
The actors in Drive are well known as true actors who respect their craft: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, and Albert Brooks. Gosling has shown his chops before with The Believer, Half Nelson, and Lars and the Real Girl and might have the fewest lines of dialogue ever by a film’s main character. Carey Mulligan, still resonant from An Education, pulls off a sympathetic next door neighbor who needs the driver’s help even though she may not know it. Bryan Cranston is assigned a more stock character and Albert Brooks who usually plays bumbling schlubs gets a turn as an antagonist for once. The only sour note is Ron Perlman who just plays an extension of his Sons of Anarchy character.
This script requires true actors to flesh it out. Scenes with words are few and far between so that facial expressions say more in conversations than dialogue does, especially between Gosling and Mulligan. There is a reason you will not see Jennifer Aniston and Ryan Reynolds in Drive; there is now way they could just sit in a room, stare at each other, and talk to each other with their eyes and cheek bones.
Drive’s director, Nicolas Winding Refn, won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for one reason, necessity. If the film does not need it, it is not there. For example, when the driver is waiting outside while a robbery is going on inside, there is no sound. If you were waiting in a car with the radio off, it would be exceptionally quiet, just like in the film. There is no background noise, no radio on, nothing. The audience was absolutely quiet right along with the film straining to hear what was going on in the building next door. Refn could have extended the car chase scenes with more screeching tires, made the scenes between Gosling and Mulligan more romantic, and turned down the accompanying existential philosophy. By choosing not to do these things is why he won Best Director.
Existential is the most apt word to describe the driver. He gives his own life meaning and purpose. His background is never brought up once, but something in his past has shaped his actions. He lives his life sincerely despite the myriad distractions of obviously crooked associates, menacing goons, and the unfamiliar terrain of romantic feelings towards a woman. What truly makes Drive so good is all of the pitfalls it avoids by just focusing the camera on Gosling on Mulligan and letting it go from there. Mainstream audiences looking for standard car chases and fist fights on a Saturday night will not understand Drive; the philosophical undercurrents here make them uncomfortable. Drive is for those who appreciate diving in a bit deeper rather than wading in the cliché kiddy pool.