Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Love: Drive

By day, he's a stuntman for the movies.  He puts on a heavy latex mask, becomes an optical illusion, and flips cars while the cameras roll.  He's also a mechanic, a car whisperer silently working small miracles as though the only language he really speaks is that of the engine.  By night, he's a getaway driver taking jobs without the mask, stylishly clad in a silver satin jacket, scorpion embroidered on the back, harboring criminals and ferrying them to their destinations.  He's a silent type, a man with no name who rolled into town one day and asked for a job.  His roles are juxtaposed smartly in the opening scenes.  Against the glittering darkness of Los Angeles, he's a fringe criminal.  On set, he wears a police uniform, a costume that makes us think for an instant that he's a rogue agent and solidifies his dual nature in our imaginations.  He's the Driver, good and bad, so-called because that's what he does.  His lack of a name makes him a stock character, an archetype, a western antihero or noir shadow.  He meets a girl named Irene (Carey Mulligan) with a husband named Standard fresh out of prison and a son who The Driver (in his own way) takes a liking to.  Standard wants to be reformed, wants to be forgiven, but his past catches up with him.  He's in trouble, The Driver offers to help because The Driver knows how to disappear.  Things go horribly, horribly wrong in a way that is polarizing and upsetting.  Foreign objects enter human flesh in ways we cannot anticipate.  We realize we don't know The Driver's past.  We don't know why he seems so hesitant to make connections and so calm under pressure.  Perhaps it's because all this has happened before.  Perhaps wherever he goes, trouble finds him.
Such is the nature of Drive, a film many have been quick to affix a grindhouse label to and too willing to equate with the vehicular adrenaline thrillers of the 70's.  But, Gosling is not McQueen, The Driver is not Bullitt, and Drive, while it may indulge in some heavy ultra-violence, seems to me to take many of its central cues from 70's art house, not merely B-grade exploitation.  It's a film paced so beautifully in the first half, so reliant on measured moments and silence that the second half is a sucker punch, a sudden jolt that makes us question everything about our protagonist.  In an early, establishing scene, we're presented with a nearly silent robbery that's executed flawlessly.  The Driver picks up the masked criminals, drops them off, waits.  He does not make small talk.  We do not see what happens in the building they've entered, or what it is they're out to steal.  Like The Driver, we do not care.  We're not there for the literal payoff.  There's tension in these moments, but it's an anxiety built off of the fine line between patience and panic. The Driver doesn't communicate with the thieves listening anxiously to the radio intercepting the police scanners, and thus doesn't communicate with us.  He doesn't offer a back-up plan or clue them in as to what will happen if they make a wrong turn.  His plan is never outlined and our director, Nicolas Winding Refn, doesn't use a bombastic score or fractured shots to make his point.  For The Driver, every moment out of harms way becomes more meaningful and is savored. He moves in slow motion, takes his time, doesn't count the seconds unless he's behind the wheel with a stopwatch. At night, in the silver jacket?  Each second is one of a million outcomes all with the potential to be his last.
While Drive is in many ways an action film built off of muscle cars and mob bosses, its sledgehammer heart is in the construction of its antihero.  I mentioned earlier that Drive felt more art house than "car movie" to me, I meant it.  As I watched, it wasn't Bullitt I was reminded of, or any of the films Tarantino built Death Proof off of.  It was John Cassavetes and early Martin Scorsese.  Specifically some bastard hybrid of Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Taxi Driver, with the vigilante justice amped up to 11.  The opening titles may as well be the Los Angeles, synth pop version of Taxi Driver's neon, saxophone scored glow.  We can draw a million comparisons between the films from there, however shallow: the role as literal driver, the isolation of the characters, the presence of Albert Brooks, the conflicted, violent nature of our hero's savior routine, the names of the women they choose to "save."  In Drive, though, where De Niro's Travis Bickle narrated his psychosis, was fueled into a shell-shocked rage by the sleaze and grime he saw all over those New York streets, The Driver is a character perhaps influenced less by personal beliefs and more by raw, split-second decisions and the myths perpetuated by the city he inhabits.  He's a character in a metropolis built off of fictions and archetypes and like those characters, he's most comfortable speaking when he's staying on script: confidently delivering an exacting speech to each of his clients, cultivating a persona styled and built off of the existence, the presence of characters like Bullitt and Bickle.
Drive is a haunting thriller that refuses to let us look away.  It's stylized and raw, inhabiting the over and the under, the real and the fantasy all at once.  Ryan Gosling's performance here is quiet, understated, and frightening.  Still waters run deep, my friends, and we can't be sure at any moment if The Driver envisions himself as a lover or a fighter.  He's both, surely, and a hero (perhaps a legend) in his own mind.  His actions are brutal, quick, and deliberate.  When the skulls are smashed (and oh, the skulls are smashed), the camera and The Driver overstay their welcome.  We're used to a villain's head getting pounded, we're not used to the dull repetition, or the aftermath.  In my opinion, it's deliberate.  The violence serves its purpose, even as it sickens, and it's not to fill us with the schadenfreude glee of the standard revenge drama.  No, The Driver masquerades as hero, as Halloween costume and symbol of swagger-heavy, cool, silent masculine identity.  Yet, he's not that.  He's an indictment of that macho posturing, an illusion and allusion; a 21st century Travis Bickle, Alex DeLarge, or Tyler Durden for teenagers to find angst-ridden catharsis in before growing up to see the other side.  Drive is complicated and simplistically taut, bloodthirsty and beautiful, smart and mindless, slow even as it rapidly spirals out of control.  It's a contradiction and, in this cinematic landscape, an enigma: the ruthless actioner that does not resort to CGI, does not pander to the lowest common denominator, and which relies on our patience.  


  1. There's been a lot of love for this movie, I'm wondering if it's because it is something truely special of because it is a throwback to something we so desperatly want movies to look like again. A bit of both maybe? Or even better maybe one logically justifies the other?

  2. That's the first time I've seen 'Drive' compared to 'Taxi Driver', but it's funny that Albert Brooks plays the 'villain' in both them. I'm not sure there's many films that are going to beat this one for me this year.

  3. Happy to see you loved it too! I just watched it for a second time this morning and I'm in love with this film. Nicely written review :)

  4. @Mike: I'd say it's a bit of both, and that one does justify the other...

    @impassioned: Albert Brooks was so unexpected here, but it oddly only reinforced the 'Taxi Driver' elements for me.

    @Castor: Second time already! Glad to know it held up so well between viewings. Thanks!

  5. definitely going to see this one again. I love that its not messy or tries to make you think too hard. Its a beautiful film, why can't they be simple why must they be SO melodramatic and cliche?

    I love that Ryan on Conan called it a John Hughes action movie, cause it is!


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