Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's dazzling exercise in style over substance has become a love it or hate it proposition since its official selection at Cannes, where it won the Best Director award. This isn't entirely surprising. Mr. Refn's work has always pretty much been divisive, and Drive - an American-financed production that at one point was thought of as a possible blockbuster franchise-starter - takes that divisiveness to the next level; it applies the director's love of stylisation to a film noir perennial, the loner caught up in a plot where nothing is what it seems. But, in truth, the manic drive and energy that made Pusher such a remarkable debut has been slowly dissipated through Mr. Refn's follow-up films, congealing in Drive as a crisp, glowing, stand-alone facade of pulsing neons and hyper-real slow-motion soundtracked by Cliff Martinez's glacial, ambient electronics.

     You sense what Mr Refn - hand-picked by star Ryan Gosling to handle the project - was aiming at: a stylized update of classic thriller territory, echoing the urban neon cool of Michael Mann's modernist thrillers and the freshening up of its tropes that directors like John Boorman, Walter Hill or William Friedkin attempted in the 1960s and 1970s. Drive knowingly presents itself as a gloss on those films and as an admission of the impossibility of recapturing their magic; Mr. Gosling's almost morose silences are as much a classic element of detective and thriller fiction as a realisation you can no longer play hardboiled dialogue straight like you would 40 years ago.

     In a way, that makes this tale of a stunt driver (Mr. Gosling) whose interest in his next-door neighbour (Carey Mulligan) leads to an involvement in a heist that goes wrong a sort of ghost story, one whose hero is already dead from the first minute we lay eyes on him. Dead, both metaphorically (the driver is never named in the film, and such a chivalrous lone knight is possibly a remnant of an earlier age where innocence was still possible), and practically (we know from the very first frames that something will come to undo the smooth mechanics of the driver's life). The graphic, bloody violence the film introduces at the 60-minute mark is further evidence that Mr. Refn is playing precisely with that comprehension that the old codes of honour no longer apply - like a Jean-Pierre Melville thriller, brutally ripped from its original landmarks, had crash-landed in a Takashi Miike or Takeshi Kitano freakout.

     For all it plays with, Drive is an utterly fascinating, dazzlingly visualized object, down to the way Mr. Refn and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, revel in heightening the bright-lights-big-city visuals of a highly stylized Los Angeles. But it's style as substance, with the sleek, smoothly-running, almost Soderberghian cool of the visuals unable to hide the empty vacuum where its heart should be, utterly disposable and derivative where the films it tries to mimic were extremely idiossyncratic, personalised one-offs.

Ryan Gosling; Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman; Oscar Isaac; Albert Brooks.
     Director, Nicolas Winding Refn; screenplay, Hossein Amini, from the novel by James Sallis Drive; cinematography, Newton Thomas Sigel (colour, digital intermediate by Company 3); music, Cliff Martinez; production designer, Beth Mickle; costume designer, Erin Benach; editor, Mat Newman; producers, Marc Platt, Adam Siegel, John Palermo, Gigi Pritzker, Michael Litvak (Bold Films, Oddlot Entertainment, Marc Platt, Motel Movies in association with Newbridge Film Capital), USA, 2011, 100 minutes. (US distributor, Filmdistrict. World sales, Sierra/Affinity International.) 
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Campo Pequeno 2, Lisbon, November 30th 2011. 


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