Arriving on the site of his day job—an average repair garage on Reseda Blvd.—in the middle of the night, Ryan Gosling’s nameless driver stands in the reflection of a muscle car window, putting his gloves on. His boss/handler, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) pushes his body off the hood, limping to sell him on tonight’s getaway vehicle. “Plain Jane Boring, just like you asked for, but I dropped another 300 horses on the inside; she is gonna fly!”
What follows is a pulse pounding LA street heist. Set to The Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock,” the opening stretch of “Drive,” which turned 10 this month, throws the audience into a ritual of intimate process, packaging itself with firmly established genre wrappings. Posturing beside a lonesome lamp in his Echo Park apartment, the Driver knows precisely where tonight’s story is going to go—in fact it’s built into his plan, which involves coinciding the job with the Clippers game letting out of Staples Center. Cut to a windshield shot. Road sounds hum, the music track thumping like a heartbeat.
Refn’s movie presents peak stylistic postmodernism maximizing its genre reverence, and minimizing all extraneous plot. Effectively a polished re-telling of a tale told before (via Walter Hill’s “The Driver,” Michael Mann’s “Thief,” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog,” and others) “Drive” can almost be over-simplistically described as a cover of Melville’s “Le Samourai,” but the 2011 film is evidence that cinematic reverence has evolved into a subgenre itself.
“Drive” is a mixtape of silent ronin posturing and repressed male longing; it’s cinema’s far-reaching myth of the self-imposed, honorable warrior-type repackaged. Refn’s film plays like a dream pop adrenaline shot—uber style oozing sensitivity beneath the surface. The opening scene acts as a compressed version of the prologue of “Le Samourai,” in which its titular figure, Jef (Alain Delon), carries out a cocktail club hit in disciplinary fashion, donning a fedora and trench coat. Upon exiting, the piano player (Cathy Rosier) sees our samurai, resulting in a violation of his moral code. Normally, he’d leave no witnesses, but an unspoken camaraderie between him and this woman overtakes emotion.
In contrast to the one-note grit one might assume another modern retooling to take, an affection for fairy tale romanticism shines through Refn’s aesthetic, rendering it a much more personal retelling as he doubles down on highlighting the fable-esque components of a tough guy who goes soft behind the eyes.
“Do you know the story of The Scorpion and the Frog?,” Gosling’s nameless silhouette asks his underworld adversary, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks)—the actor having also priorly discussed his wheelman character representing a knight in a fantasy legend, with Irene (Carey Mulligan) being the damsel in distress. But the damsel is already married to Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), a man about to get out of prison who owes money to the wrong sorts, looking for penance just like our nameless hero.