A couple of hours before the London press screening of Drive, its Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn appeared on the BBC Breakfast sofa, alongside leading lady Carey Mulligan. Questioned about the explosive nature of his film, Refn thoughtfully (if somewhat disturbingly) ventured "Violence is a bit like fucking..." This set host Bill Turnbull into an immediate conniption fit, forcing his guest into an apology that Refn offered in the style of a sheepish schoolboy, or a Cannes-approved director faced, at nine in the morning, with a particular and enduring form of English puritanism - the kind that not only cuts away from streakers at televised football matches, but also insists that commentators note "we're not going to give this idiot the oxygen of publicity". Refn's countryman Lars von Trier experienced a similar reaction to somewhat more controversial statements at Cannes this year, and the idea words only get us into trouble receives an expression of sorts in Drive, a pared-back action movie about a man who'd rather let his driving do the talking. If this were a pop song - and the prominence Refn accords to music throughout suggests his film well aspires to being a catchy little number - then its title would be preceded by a parenthesised "Shut up and..."
Here is a hero, played in his second role of the week by Ryan Gosling, who goes under the name Driver, whose every relationship takes place in and around cars. A movie stuntman by day, a getaway driver by night, Driver only really notices Irene (Mulligan), the diner madonna-with-child who lives down the hall, when she's standing in the parking lot of their apartment block with her bonnet up, and smoke pouring from her engine. (She, of course, seems to need a man who knows his way around a fanbelt.) The setting, Los Angeles, remains the American capital of freeways, and Drive has the glossy, snappy look of a film conducted in the spirit of cinematic tourism by a director flat-out dazzled by the city's bright lights, its actors, its surfaces; it's possible Refn undertook the entire project just to shoot in the L.A. storm drain, though it's pushing it to imply this iconic channel should provide young not-quite-lovers passage to the sundappled paradise to which Driver ends up transporting Irene and her son.
When Mulligan says "he had a good time" of her child in the wake of this excursion, we're still not quite sure whether or not this dame is falling for her chauffeur, or simply measuring his lap speeds - but then her hand joins his on the gearstick, and we instantly realise these two go together like garage forecourts and charcoal briquettes. Trouble is, he's a loner, unused to having somebody in the passenger seat, and she has plenty of baggage for one so apparently young: chiefly, an errant husband (Oscar Isaac), who - released from prison - recruits Driver to help rob a pawn shop and thus pay off the protection money he owes. Our hero's first instinct is to drive away, but the girl and the kid are being threatened too, so he acquiesces, and it's at this point that the wheels come off in quite spectacular fashion.
The source is a book by James Sallis, but Drive's real model is cinematic: a run of minimalist L.A. thrillers running back from Michael Mann's similarly glistening Heat to Walter Hill's The Driver, an early neo-noir from which Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini deduct four letters and to which they add the shamelessness of the console game Grand Theft Auto: credits in a gaudy pink font, an 80s-infused synthesiser soundtrack, a bit - actually, make that a lot - of the old ultra-violence.
In previous outings (Bronson, the Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising), Refn wrestled, with varying degrees of success, with the age-old question of man's inhumanity to his fellow man, and whether or not that violence isn't in fact central to who we are. From these investigations, he's developed an appreciable form of clutch control: Drive's first half throbs like a finely-tuned engine with ominous, hold-and-release tensions, whether the ticking of the watch Driver uses to calibrate his getaways, or the taut coiling of his patent leather driving gloves. (Like a BP catalogue, the film is stocked full of these fetish items - a case full of carving knives, a padded silver jacket with a scorpion design stitched into the back - as though to suggest this is what you, too, can get, if you spend enough on gas.)
Yet when this tension finally erupts, like so many of the supporting characters' heads, Drive gets messy; if it retains the sheen and percussiveness of Heat - something of its internal motor, its metabolic purr - it simply hasn't the heart, nor the soul. In Mann's meticulous universe, every bullet could be heard, counted and (most importantly) felt. The violence in Drive, by contrast, means nothing outside the milieu of these characters; it's just another element of notional "cool" designed (and Refn, with his keen visual sense, has done more than most to conceptualise violence) to elicit a response from those jaded palates who routinely reduce hookers and Hare Krishnas alike to a smear on the pavements of Vice City. Within the film, it results in such showoffy business as a scene in which the previously restrained Driver marches into a titty bar - a location Refn adjourns to with rather too much lipsmacking relish - in order to take a clawhammer to a man's fingers in full view of a row of topless, passive dancing girls.
Well, I suppose if you want restraint, there's always Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which has restraint up its anally retentive wazoo; for Refn, such moments, revelling as they do in senseless gore, is all of a part with the glossy spectacle he's here fostering. The result is trash with just enough hint of an out-there directorial sensibility to lend our Saturday-night multiplex consumption of it a certain cultural heft, but also a film that has to keep moving to prevent us from scrutinising the blood on its upholstery - that desecration of surfaces a flashy eyecatcher like Drive can't really bring itself, and won't allow itself the time, to contemplate.
Drive is in cinemas nationwide.