With Bronson and Valhalla Rising (both of which are streaming on Netflix and deserve to be watched, like, now), Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn has come out of nowhere to invent a new kind of indie machismo cinema. His leading men are Men, not to be fucked with, and not to even be looked at in the wrong way. But for these anti-heroes, Refn has photographed gorgeous worlds just as entrancing for them to exist in, defining them more as arthouse darlings than action extravaganzas.
With his new film, Drive, things aren’t so low key. While still produced independently, Refn’s skill has gotten him notice by the some of the hottest names in Hollywood. Filmed on location in Los Angeles with actors like Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks, this is a movie that can (and is) playing wide.
But Refn’s first encounter with Hollywood has hardly compromised his craft. While Drive‘s narrative is downright streamlined when compared to the two movies that preceded it, this is still a film doesn’t mind meandering around scenery, even when it has no real purpose in the story. These sequences define the movie, where blood breaks against golden sheens and dance music that calls back to poppier, electronic time fill in the world of a nameless car mechanic-by-day, getaway driver-by-night (Gosling).
Gosling acts in enormous ways with his roles, but for this one he keeps most of his work internal. At the beginning of the film, it’s questionable if he’ll ever speak on screen. It works; the intensity we saw in his roles from films like Blue Valentine and Half Nelson is still right there, this time it’s just in his stillness. Besides, the environment created for Drive is designed to say everything about the character that we need to know: he’s a driver. He can help people by driving. He wants to help people, and will do so even when it means hurting others.
The violence in Drive won’t be a surprise to fans of Refn’s work, but it goes way further than most horror films (despite being an action film). It contributes to the hyperreality of the film, violence this extreme is out of the ordinary for the audience, but it’s all pretty simple for Gosling’s character.
What makes Drive more than just a slick action flick is the beauty that Refn can create alongside such gore. With scenes that easily recall Kubrick while doing justice to its muse, it’s clearly a callback to a time when Hollywood could create the occasional action film with real aesthetic value. Drive isn’t just exciting and awesome, it’s pretty.