I’ve seen the last few Nicholas Winding Refn films, and while I liked both Bronson and Valhalla Rising a lot, they were both “difficult” films, in that both structure, pacing and tone were bound to alienate some people, and of course they were both marketed as somewhat mainstream films while being anything but.
Part of the irony of Refn’s situation is that he makes films about “Primal” man- and these protagonists invariably commit acts of great violence on those around them. This violence puts his films into the genre categories that Hollywood recognises and promotes to the public, resulting in trailers for Refn movies that grossly misrepresent the sophistication of the actual film. In that way, Valhalla’s intense, slow-burning and almost dialogue-free mythic exploration of our savage past can be repackaged as a “Vlad the Viking goes to the New World” action movie.
Yet both Valhalla and Bronson were highly “directed” films, revealing a very strong hand in control of the material. And so, I was extremely curious to see what Refn would do with the material, and whether he would be able to rein in his sometimes obtrusive style in order to allow the story more room to breathe… I shouldn’t have worried. I think the director has managed to balance a genuine artistry with the demands of the genre in a way that is rarely, if ever, achieved. I absolutely loved it. Just stay the hell away from the trailer, as it reveals far too much, and again, misrepresents the film’s true “feel”.
Driver has a tone of wry amusement at everything around it, much like Gosling’s half-smirk, pivoted on the toothpick perpetually in the corner of his mouth. Schmucky gangsters and mob clichés provide some laughs, but the heart of the film is Gosling’s portrayal of the unnamed? main character and his sweet, underplayed romance with Mulligan and her young son.
While an ethereal synthesizer-pop soundtrack provides an at-times tender,at-times mythic undercurrent, the car chases and action scenes, when they come, are tense, brutal and brief- far more Eastern Promises than The Transporter. Mulligan plays her character all trembly, wet-eyed, sweet and innocent and is swept away by Gosling’s quiet strength and self-assured charm, while Gosling speaks little and remains a mystery to the end, though we never doubt his fundamentally good nature.
The seasoned supporting cast are all very fun, except maybe for Kendricks who is relegated to a fairly irrelevant part. Of course, this is really Gosling’s film, and he inhabits the character completely, turning what could be a straightforward Hollyood tough-guy role into a complex and contradictory character, self-confident and physical, yet clearly lonely and possessed with a certain peculiarity and stillness, almost reminiscent of De Niro’s Travis Bickle.
Visually the film is lush and gorgeous. Like Michael Mann, Refn and his cinematographer are able to instill LA with a sense of life and character that most directors just fail to do. Unlike Mann however, Refn opts for warm orange tones over Mann’s hard blues, and in one particularly beautiful sequence the familiar LA cliché of driving down the dry LA river is taken to an unexpectedly joyful conclusion.
Despite its absolute craftsmanship, Driver is probably not for everybody, which makes me sad. People who prefer bald-headed muscle men slugging and wise-cracking their way into their wallets should of course stay away, as this bears very little resemblance to the standard Hollywood fare associated with the genre, and they might well be disappointed.
But for me, Driver was sweet, surreal, mythic, tense, fun, hilarious, revolting, and surprising. See it because it will make you a better person.