The opening scene of Drive is, appropriately, a car chase. But it's clear early on that this is not a car chase film in the Fast and the Furious style. With nary a word spoken in its first ten minutes, save a police radio commentary and a sportscast of a Clippers basketball game, Drive sets itself apart as an art film from the get go: quietly intense, curious, ironic, oddly paced, retro (pulsating '80s techno soundtrack and pink font opening titles straight out of 1987), and very self consciously cinematic.
As it unfolds, the structure of Drive mimics the stop-and-go, twist-and-turn nature of driving in Los Angeles. Trance-like, almost meditative stretches are regularly interrupted by brief, jarring explosions of intense violence. Frequent gear-shifts in tone—between wide-eyed earnestness and campy ridiculousness—match the temperament of the alternately sweet and psychotic protagonist (Ryan Gosling). But does this journey ever get anywhere, or is it just a joyride through the landscapes of pulpy, freeform cinematic indulgence?
The plot of Drive—directed by Danish up-and-comer Nicolas Winding Refn—is standard fare for a L.A. noir film. Based on the 2005 novel of the same name by James Sallis, Drive tells the story of a brooding, morally complex man-of-few-words (Gosling, aka "Driver") who falls in love with the wrong girl (Carey Mulligan) and becomes something of a father figure to her little boy (Kaden Leos). Turns out the girl has a shady husband (Oscar Isaac) who comes home from prison and instantly gets in trouble with mobsters, enlisting Driver to help with a heist. (Driver works as a stunt car driver for the movies by day and a getaway driver for criminals by night.) Predictably, the heist goes terribly wrong, launching a bloody sequence of events for the remainder of the film, as Driver is thrust into a kill-or-be-killed death match with mobsters, set against the backdrop of seedy nightclubs, a pizza place, rundown apartment complexes, and the eerie, surrealist glow of afterhours L.A.
That's more or less the plot. But Drive is not primarily about the plot; it's about archetypes, genre, and style. It's about Gosling riffing on iconic antiheroes like Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood, with dashes of vigilante superheroes; it's about graphic novel-influenced shot-framing and Los Angeles mood lighting informed by the cinema of Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) and David Lynch (Mulholland Drive); it's about '70s exploitation films and road movies, '80s "neon noir" films with touches of John Hughes; it's about the '90s hyperviolent pastiche genre introduced by Quentin Tarantino and his groundbreaking "lowbrow camp as high art" masterpiece Pulp Fiction. In other words, Drive is very much about the movies, and its choreographed car chases and slow-mo shots of heads exploding do not let you forget it.
Let's talk about that violence. Do not be deceived by the soft pink fonts you see on the Drive posters. This is a brutal film. Some will maintain that the over-the-top violence—throats slashed, heads exploded by gun shots, heads bashed in by boots, various other body parts impaled by household objects—is appropriate to the stylized, self-consciously artificial nature of the film. It's a film about the violent tradition of gangster films and hardboiled noir, after all. Yes, we get it. But one wonders why Refn—who displays such class and technical prowess elsewhere in the film—resorts to not only incorporating outrageous violence, but to focusing the camera on it longer and more relentlessly close than anyone needs to see. Perhaps he's trying to make a statement about Hollywood's glorification of gore or America's obsession with violence. If so, ho-hum. Tarantino, Scorsese, Haneke and others have made that statement enough times already.