Refn and Gosling cruise streets of fire...

Drive review

Anyone expecting Transporter 4 or Fast & Furious 6 will see their expectations crash and burn within 10 seconds.

As the camera scuds between twinkling skyscrapers in downtown LA, credits of the hottest pink light up a widescreen sky of the blackest velvet and a Euro-electro score pulses, pulses, pulses.

This, immediately, is the world of ’80s Michael Mann movies, of A-game Walter Hill pictures, of William Friedkin’s style-drenched neo-noir To Live And Die In LA.

Post-credits, Drive hits the ground cruising as Ryan Gosling’s wheelman glides through an asphalt jungle in a classic Motor City machine, toothpick jutting from clenched teeth.

On the radio, a basketball game blips and burbles – a seemingly incidental detail that will prove key to the action. Driver (for that is the only name he’s given) works the gear shaft and feeds the wheel; his knuckles flex, his leather gloves creak.

Composed and confident, laconic and iconic, he’s about to prove he’s the best getaway driver in town…

Night and the city

Long considered a talented maverick whose spiky sensibility could never fit into square old Hollywood, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher Trilogy, Bronson) has here made an explosive action movie that got Cannes critics whooping in the aisles.

But don’t be fooled: a Cannes critic’s guilty ‘mainstream’ pleasure is a multiplex viewer’s art movie, and any jolting violence is cushioned by lush, low-key longueurs comprised of geometric cityscapes, abstract tableaux, striking camera angles, calibrated light and shadow, reflective surfaces, empty corridors and terse, economic exchanges full of syncopated beats.

There is, of course, a girl, and she even lives next door. Irene (Carey Mulligan) cares for her young son (Kaden Leos) while her husband (Oscar Isaac) does time. Driver, naturally, finds himself not only gravitating towards her but breaking all of his own rules to protect her.

It is for Irene, circuitously, that he takes on a pawn-shop heist that goes inevitably wrong, and she is the baggage that weighs down our previously unburdened, unemotional crim as he feels the heat around the corner.

Clichéd? Sure, only Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini, adapting James Sallis’ book, play out the de rigueur romantic sub-plot in unexpected ways: Driver and Irene communicate largely in silence, their bond forged through shifting gazes and meaningful half-smiles (DoP Newton Thomas Sigel maps the human face as closely as downtown LA); and the film’s most swooningly romantic flourish precedes its most violent set-piece.

Star vehicle

It’s this clashing of moods and subverting of stereotypes that sets Drive’s engine purring, with Refn swerving between blazing daylight and silky night, between staple set-ups and offbeat outcomes, between familiar faces and surprising character traits (funnyman Albert Brooks ices blood as a Hollywood producer/ gangster), between glimmering helicopter shots and tyre-squealing ground-level chases, between crushed skulls and synth pop, between classic movies and Refn’s unique worldview.

It makes for a film both archetypal and fresh and, as such, it’s hard to put a pin through. Gosling wasn’t kidding when he described Drive as a mix of Blue Velvet and Purple Rain…

The cast is strong, from Mulligan’s serenely stoical princess (Drive can be read as an urban fairytale) to Bryan Cranston’s mechanic/fixer to Ron Perlman’s intimidating henchman.

But it is Gosling, along with Refn’s meticulous, dynamic direction, that is the star of the show, his tight-lipped turn evoking the cool charisma of Steve McQueen in Bullitt or Alain Delon in Le Samouraï.

Dressed in aviator shades, driving gloves and a satin racing jacket emblazoned, tellingly, with a scorpion, his Driver may be a blank-faced cut-out deprived of the barest hint of backstory, but he’s an intriguing, mesmerising blank-faced cut-out – the kind of amoral, dysfunctional anti-hero that so often becomes a poster boy.

Might he register as this generation’s Man With No Name, their Travis Bickle? Perhaps that’s going too far, but Gosling’s Hollywood-stuntman-by-day, getaway-driver-by-night is the stuff of fantasy, and his mysterious dispensation towards dishing Gaspar Noé levels of violence is exactly what got the Cannes viewers cheering.

Next up for Refn and Gosling is a re-run of 1976 action-sci-fi flick Logan’s Run. A $200m blockbuster? Just don’t expect it to play by studio rules…


An action crime movie that’s as cerebral and surreal as it is red-blooded. If director Refn and star Gosling accelerate into the mainstream with Drive, they’ll be doing it on their own terms, with style.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • DanRose

      Sep 14th 2011, 1:42

      For God sake... anyone who is interested in Total Film is not going to expect 'Drive' to be anything like Fast and the Furious 6 or Transporter 4. How very insulting...

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    • Murphy0806

      Sep 18th 2011, 20:24

      I didn't find that insulting at all. I don't think that comment was directed specifically at TF readers. I think Mr Graham was just kick starting his review with a comment on how different this film is to the usual Hollywood action film output. He said 'Anyone expecting', not if you were expecting.

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    • Smiler13

      Sep 22nd 2011, 0:23

      I went along with my daughter in law to see this and although it seemed a little slow in places, it also left you wondering at the end, what happened to him.. Did he survive, or did he just drive out of town to die..? Either way, we came out the cinema and both said overall, we'd both enjoyed it.. Plus... he was very easy on the eye to look at..!!

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    • scuzz80

      Sep 23rd 2011, 22:34

      @Smiler13 are you trolling or just generally that ignorant you would allude to the end of a new release in the comments section. Luckily I had already seen the film but that doesn't excuse your inconsiderate comment. On another subject hands up who would like to see Albert Brooks receive the Oscar for Actor in a supporting role....

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    • Filmfan121

      Oct 2nd 2011, 15:30

      A film that will no doubt be a cult classic, loved it gives you plenty to think about, and thats all I'm going to say.

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    • joker16

      Oct 15th 2011, 6:54


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    • district9

      Feb 3rd 2012, 18:21


      The best film of 2011. Refn did a great job of directing, and gosling was so good. I would have liked to see Albert brooks get nominated for best supporting actor at the oscars(he was snubbed so badly) as he was nothing but chilling and terrifying(in a good way).

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    • matthewbrady

      Jun 30th 2014, 20:23


      This film is about a stuntman-turned-wheelman must use all his skills to survive after a botched job results in a contract on his head. This movie has a amazing soundtrack and the directing in this movie was just brilliant.

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