In 1976, Martin Scorsese adapted Paul Schrader's brutally misanthropic script Taxi Driver into a critically acclaimed film, centering on a Vietnam-veteran, Travis Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro, whose mental stability rapidly deteriorates as he perceives the grotesque moral state into which the city around him has plunged. Bickle is little more than a deranged loner, being unable to relate to anyone and becoming dangerously obsessive over a woman at a senator's political campaign office and a teenaged prostitute. The film is abstracted by stunted dialogue, overt racism (Scorsese actually had to change the ethnicity of some of his characters, like the pimps in the gunfight finale, because he feared the movie's portrayal of African-Americans could potentially spark violent reactions at the film's premiere), and a surrealistic exploration into the detached and deluded psyche of Travis Bickle, an anti-hero to end all anti-heroes.
In 2011, a film by Nicolas Winding Refn embodies the same cinematic spirit of Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The film is Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. Unfortunately, Drive is currently being marketed as an action film, which it could never seriously be accused of, any more than Taxi Driver could be. Drive, a movie about a stunt-driver (Gosling) who performs as a getaway wheelman for criminals for the right price, definitely riffs on the ultra-violent clichés of modern cinema, but it could hardly be considered an action movie or a even a thriller. Refn takes an approach similar to Scorsese's in telling his film's otherwise kosher plot: he adroitly out-maneuvers boorish tropes with a beautiful scope, framed by magnificent cinematography and hypnagogic sequences of reconditeness. Drive progresses dreamily, just as Taxi Driver did, dilating small moments into profundity and compressing larger moments into berserk, absurdist splashes of violence and rage derived from some horrific nightmare. Gosling's nameless character, clad in his uniquely odd, scorpion-emblazoned jacket, is conceived not within heavily-scripted dialogue, which is refreshingly scarce here, but rather in silent intervals of awkward body language and unnerving stoicism. He's the Travis Bickle of the 21st century, a disturbed hero with the best of intentions.
Speaking of "hero," there's another area in which Drive resembles its predecessor, and that is its scoring. Whereas Taxi Driver utilized a haunting, out-of-place, film-noire saxophone croon to great effect in its score, Drive takes an equally unfamiliar and pre-modern approach: Drive's synth-throbbing soundtrack is so literal in its connotations to the film, which it provides with an abstracted commentary (see "A Real Hero" by College and "Nightcall" by Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx, remixed by Alcala), that it seems it's some sort of modern Greek chorus with 80s New Wave sensibilities. It's a revelation in film, being equal parts ham-fisted and ironic, much like Drive's use of a simultaneously sincere and tongue-in-cheek montage early in its one-hundred-minute duration.
Being a film that seems ostensibly about car chases, Drive is surprisingly light on white-knuckle chase scenes and admirably light on CGI effects. One sequence portrays a car chase as a low speed, strategic engagement of cat and mouse. Another seems to posit a car as a predator and another as its hapless prey. There's truly only one actual balls-to-the-wall car chase, and even this is rendered dreamlike by a lack of musical accompaniment. Drive truly sets its sights on being something that resides well beyond the inartistic confines of blockbuster cinema, and it accomplishes it with its unorthodox and cryptic pretenses, just as Taxi Driver once accomplished several decades ago.