[As one might expect from an article called “Script to Screen,” this article is a spoilertastrophe for Drive. If you haven’t seen it, don’t read it.]
Let’s get this out of the way first thing: Drive is a terrible script. I don’t usually pay much attention to news and gossip, but it’s hard to avoid when Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, and my beloved Albert Brooks sign on to a script that ranks near the very bottom of the shit heap I’ve read (keep in mind, I read Law-Abiding Citizen, so that’s saying something). “Maybe,” I speculated, “the script has dramatically changed to make it appealing to competent actors.”
It hasn’t, but—get this—I actually liked the movie. They changed the absolute worst thing about the script—a serious, debilitating plot hole—But did I like the movie for what it was, or what it imitated? Because, you see, Drive‘s greatest liability and second-greatest asset (the greatest being the quality of the actors, elevating material far beyond the cheap, B-movie schlock it should have been) is director Nicolas Winding Refn’s self-conscious aping of early Michael Mann. Drive rehashes Thief, both in style and in content (swap out safe-cracking for stunt driving, and it’s basically the same movie), right down to the cursive, hot-pink credits and abuse of low-rent synth-pop.
The thing about Mann, for me, is that he knows how to blend the superficial gloss of contemporary coolness with the grit that permeates…pretty much everything in modern society. The Tangerine Dream score of Thief was not a self-conscious throwback or an attempt to emulate earlier directors. Tangerine Dream was just a few years past its peak popularity, and I’d make the argument that synth-pop evolved naturally from disco by amping up the experimental digital sounds and eliminating actual instruments. Synth-based pop was quickly becoming the Next Big Thing, but Mann heard the darkness and the coldness underneath the peppy veneer and exploited that to create Thief‘s mood. Mann has always used music expertly in his films, but it comes across as both derivative and self-conscious to simply ape choices he made 30 years ago rather than looking at the underlying reasons for those choices and finding a modern equivalent.
That said, the overwhelming majority of Mann’s movies—especially his crime epics—are so fucking good, pilfering his style can only help a bad script. One could argue that makes Drive style over substance, but Refn steals Mann’s style expertly. Ignoring all the self-consciousness (like the dingy, ’80s aesthetic of “Driver”‘s apartment), Refn creates the cinematic equivalent of highway hypnosis through the motion (or lack thereof) of his camera and expert sound design, lulling us into a false sense of calm until the relentlessly—almost comically—violent second half.