I can’t imagine a better way to turn up a nose to the bombast and audiovisual pollution of this summer’s blockbusters than by word-of-mouthing the hell out of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. The Danish creator of the Pusher trilogy, which you can be forgiven for not having seen (I haven’t), was given the golden ticket to Hollywood by the film’s star, Ryan Gosling, and has fast become one of the only auteurs to safely and successfully maneuver the politics and machinations of La La Land. Of course, he was apparently given much more free reign than say Jean-Pierre Jeunet, David Fincher, or Ang Lee, so he was able to enforce his vision upon Drive without interference (just imagine those Alien movies without studio pressure). It’s probably a long shot to compare the source material for Drive with what ended up on screen, as Refn gleefully explores violence, love, and heroism in his new Los Angeles stomping grounds.
Before I begin, I must say I am very guilty of missing Refn’s Pusher films, but really, after testing him out with the irresistibly promising Valhalla Rising, I can’t say I was anxious to see his other contributions to world cinema. The juxtaposition of peace and violence can make for some incredibly intriguing stories. Refer to Cache, The White Ribbon, Funny Games, Fargo, or No Country for Old Men. On the other hand, Valhalla Rising left me pissed and the depravity of its violence repulsed me instead of holding me entranced. But moreover, no movie about Vikings unknowingly sailing into Hell and beset by demons should be that boring, or the illusion of its central conceit so obvious (didn’t Colin Farell stumble around those bogs in The New World?). The only thing that drew me to Bronson was the prospect of Tom Hardy’s hallucinogenic performance, and aside from an amusing ambience, Refn’s direction only boarded Hardy’s wacko recividist inside the carnival sideshow of his mind. Hardy’s chameleonic versatility impresses, but the movie is most unnerving and memorable when other people are on screen, the average everyday people who are shuddering under Bronson’s vacant stare or cowering in the corner while he parades around naked, ready to fight like a Greek athlete, showing how obsessed Bronson is with the idea of selfless performance.
Like with any foreign cinema, or when attempting communication with any human being who prefers their mustaches pencilled and their drinks sipped, I may be missing some very obscure point, and you can question me for pointing out the merits of Bronson while first and foremost complaining about it, so I’ll be the first to say that Refn is indeed a noteworthy new figure in cinema, and he has produced some interesting pieces, which are all for the most part flawed. However, his least flawed is Drive, and his tendency to improve with experience bodes well for the future.
Part One: Concerning Drive
We are introduced to Ryan Gosling’s nameless Driver on a standard job, rendezvousing with a couple crooks, driving them around, and when necessary, evading the authorities. It all goes by without slow motion, intense musical cues, or wide-eyed close ups. Only one gunshot is fired to take out a lock. We don’t see any sparks. No shouting. No explosions. Only one dangerous stunt, really, and one frequently committed by absent-minded drivers in traffic. Driver’s car of choice? A used silver Chevy Impala, according to Driver’s employer and friend Shannon, the most popular car in California. By the time the scene plays out, our hearts are pounding. This is the kind of unelaborate action that gave Heat some of the most pulse-pounding action in recent memory. Thus sets the tone for Drive, the most ironic action movie ever made.
Driver is a loner with a buried past who makes a living fixing and driving cars in Los Angeles. He works at a garage for a friendly but less than savvy scoundrel named Shannon (Bryan Cranston), performs stunts for the movies, races local circuits, and, if it suits him, works as a getaway driver. He’s reserved to a fault, but he continues his existence in his own little microcosm by adhering to rules as strict as his toothpick is sharp. Only when he’s in a position to help does Driver approach Irene (Carey Mulligan), the cute blonde across the hallway. She has a young son, Benicio, a crap job, and a jailbird husband, so Driver plays the chivalrous father figure, more attached to Benicio than to Irene. Driver bashfully accepts Irene’s thanks and entertains the young boy’s ramblings. But just as Driver’s decided to expand his little world with the pair, Irene’s husband Standard is paroled. To avoid trouble, Driver retreats back into his shell. When Standard, portrayed refreshingly as a decent, if a bit possessive, guy, is beaten up by a couple scumbags demanding that he repay an increasingly steep debt for protection in prison, Driver takes notice, particularly when he learns that Standard’s family was threatened, and Benicio’s been handed a bullet as a calling card. Determined to shield Irene and Benicio from the criminal element he knows so well, Driver insists on helping Standard to repay the debt, and from here, Drive jumps from one harrowing showcase to another.
Contrary to common practice, Refn injects a dose of lithium into the film. Scenarios that would play with cringing excess in any action movie go by with the subtlety of a clenched jaw, or in Gosling’s case, fists. Driver’s creaking leather driving gloves often give the only indication that he registers any emotion. It’s an understatement that gives Drive a vein of jet black, brutal comedy. Driver lets us know that when he clenches his fists, someone will be turned into a bloody pulp, so when it happens again we know what to expect, even if it still horrifies us. We are guest to beautifully atmospheric music as well, which adds to the poignancy and comedy when we realize how overt the lyrics are to their respective scenes. After a few lines go by, we realize we’re listening to the sappiest overtones since Kevin Bacon played tractor chicken to “Holding Out for a Hero” by a hamstrung Bonnie Tailor. And that, in fact, is the only song missing from Drive, because looking back, I can’t possibly imagine a more perfect song for the end credits. But we’re laughing alongside Refn when confronted with this subversive sentimentality. Its placement feels so bizarre, particularly once Refn sets such a detached tone, that we can’t help but see how silly it is. Refn is parodying all the histrionic emotion he sees in movies, and to spectacular effect. Hell, Refn even makes fun of himself through Albert Brooks’s slimy Bernie Rose, who considers the “sexy” action movies he made in the 80s to be crap when they were praised for being European. And unless I’m mistaken, Refn cameos as a film production worker who approaches Driver moments before he attempts a dangerous stunt with a waiver that releases the film studio from all liability if he gets injured or killed. It’s another jerk of the head towards Hollywood. By putting Driver’s one movie-stunt scene towards the beginning of the movie, Refn taunts regular theatergoers into breaking their suspension of disbelief before delivering one of the most mesmerizing movies of the year.
Plot is virtually nonexistent at times, but when it is, it’s entwined with an entirely unknown bigger picture. Minutes of ambient techno and soft glances go by, followed by 30 seconds of tough talk by criminals alluding to powers they are indebted to. There’s no triumph over evil, and there’s hardly any combatting it. But Refn perfectly paces the tiny tastes of actual plotline, spooning out doses of motive and incidence right before we can become bored by Gosling’s and Mulligan’s adorable faces (like that could ever happen). If Driver is our hero, then Bernie Rose is certainly our villain, and at times, he’s laughably Bondian: candid, eccentric, oddly likeable. Like a tiger prowling its habitat at the zoo, he won’t let you take his eyes off him; you just know he’s brainstorming an escape.
Driver is a very regimented being, but still human. He won’t be able to get away scot free forever, either from the cops or the criminals. Rose even says so when the shit hits the fan for Driver. It’s just bad luck. It’ll happen eventually. He is surrounded by survivors who are defined in a way by some overarching mistake, a blemish on their ego. Irene has her underage pregnancy and an absent husband to contend with. Ron Perlman is a pitiful mobster with big Family aspirations that he knows will never come true. Shannon indiscriminately extorts all his customers, an attitude that’s left him with a well-earned limp. Standard faces an insurmountable debt to organized crime even after hoping to reform following his stint in prison. Driver and Rose are the most organized, the most abnormal, and it could only be them that face off at the end, both blindly confident in their chances.
In a film noted for its spontaneous and brutal violence, one of the least shocking instances, in aspects of gore and viciousness, proves to be the most disturbing. Truly establishing him as the most detestable character in Drive, Rose clinically executes one character with a deep slash across the forearm. You know it’s coming, Rose’s victim knows it’s coming, but Rose’s disgustingly nurturing approach makes his character so much easier to hate. He literally holds the character’s hand through death, like a doctor giving out booster shots to bawling children one after another, repeating his empty reassural that the pain is over, it’s all done now, it’s okay. It’s his smug, rehearsed refrain. Business as usual. Sorry for winning.
Drive is, in essence, a Western masquerading as a present-day crime thriller that wishes it was in the 80s. You got good guy Driver and bad guy Rose playing the Western archetypes. Driver is the protector of the innocent, a rogue himself who sees his kind as an aberration from society, and Brooks is the sociopath, exploiter of the masses, who feels very much a part of society and most deserving to survive. Cut from the same cloth, they are. The pacing, the slow motion, the closeups, they’re all Western, a strange culmination of 60s movie tropes and frontier power clashes, and for that, Drive is awesome. Most drunken revellers returning from the bar would do best by The Transporter, but if you know, or are, one of those incredibly deft drunks who can provide a killer interior monologue, Drive would be a terrific diversion. Otherwise, Drive is best appreciated under the power of all your senses, so that it can drug you itself.