September 23, 2011
Caution: Spoilers Abound
Reading snippets of interviews and press releases for Drive, I found a number of references by star Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn to John Hughes, specifically Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. These were perplexing remarks knowing what little I did about the film, but as I watched the film, I slowly found them quite instructive. Perhaps not for the reasons they intended, I’ll admit, but instructive all the same. Trying to analyze the similarities in a straightforward way, I couldn’t find any connection beyond a simple love story and romantic synth-pop heavy soundtrack, but even those elements weren’t terribly Hughes-like in any specific way. It dawned on me, however, during certain sequences between Ryan Gosling’s Driver (as is so often with characters of this type, he’s never given a name) and Carey Mulligan’s Irene, the next-door neighbour with whom he makes a connection. It was the feeling of these scenes that reminded me of Hughes. Not in a direct way, mind, but in the way that I watched Hughes’ movies as an adolescent, all filled with a simplistic, romantic notion that came about through a combination of my total lack of understanding of how real relationships might function and beautiful, heart-on-its-sleeve emotional synthpop. Therein lays, I think, the key to coming to understanding not only the Driver, but also the larger perspective of the film as a whole.
There is a template for these nameless heroes. Quiet, reserved, mysterious, but almost superhuman in their professionalism and abilities, they exert a high level of control and an almost omniscient understanding of every situation in which they find themselves. The loner, drifting from place to place or from job to job, is met with something that sparks the innate goodness in him to help out, even if it means sacrificing whatever rules he has come to live by in order to survive. Drive adheres to the formula closely, bringing in a stock B-movie plot and supporting characters to hang it on, the latter of which are largely given depth and a solid level of interest by what the very able actors (including Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Oscar Isaac) bring to their roles.
Driver works part-time as a Hollywood stunt driver, part-time in friend/mentor Shannon’s (Cranston) auto repair shop, and at night as a wheelman-for-hire, catering to the needs of thieves in need of a quick and clean getaway after pulling a job. He meets his new neighbours, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), and soon enough his loner-lifestyle is upended as he finds love and, thus, something worth living for. Irene is married and her husband, Standard (Isaac), returns from prison with a healthy debt on his shoulders, owed to some ne’er-do-wells who gave him protection inside. Driver realizes the only way to protect Irene and Benicio is to help on a job that Standard has been forced into by his debtors. The job, seemingly small-time, turns out not to be, and there’s a double-cross, explosions of violence, and desperately dangerous measures to be taken.
As is the way with these films, the plot is subservient to the little variations on the formula given by the director, writer, actors, et al. Very often this can result in a style-over-substance approach in which a Jason Statham type can engage in awesome action sequences in which cars flip, gunfights ensue, and explosions fill the air. On occasion you’ll get a film wherein the style is the substance, such as the case with much of Tarantino’s output. The mishmash of genre references and directorial styles he employs can lead to thrilling entertainment, but they rarely seem to mean very much of anything. The style itself is the point; it is the substance of the piece. Like Tarantino, Refn is something of a magpie with Drive, drawing upon films like Bullet for action and Michael Mann’s 1980s output for atmosphere. However, to say that this film is all style, or even style as substance in the manner of Tarantino would be a huge disservice to what Refn accomplishes here. Perhaps the “style as substance” argument can be modified here, since this isn’t a case of post-modern irony or even the influence-rearrangement that might aspire to comment on the built-in shallowness of the B-movie or Hollywood in general. The style informs Driver, and likewise, Driver informs the style. Although he never references films or winks at the camera or displays any real sense of self-awareness on the issue, Driver seems obsessed with the mythology of films – perhaps something he picked up as a stunt-driver on the sets of them. He wears the same conspicuous jacket with the scorpion sewn on the back through much of the film, even when it’s been splattered with blood. He ritualistically puts on his driving gloves and tightens his fist in preparation for potential action. He’s pretty much always chewing on a toothpick, even offering Benicio a spare one when they first meet. It is here, for me, that the John Hughes influence comes into play as a reference point. Driver’s idea of love seems filtered through watching the particularly romantic or lovelorn scenes in those John Hughes films. When he first makes a connection with Irene and Benicio, he offers to take them for a ride and show them something. A pop song takes over the soundtrack, in this case College’s “A Real Hero”, which is something like an anthem for the film. Late afternoon sunlight graces the car and pushes through the windows to warmly colour their faces for the interior shots. The trio smile as they drive through the dry concrete Los Angeles river bed, eventually making their way to a stream source and a small forest idyll. With the music and the setting, it is romantic in a fantastical way, and quite at odds with the gritty nature of most of the film. When face to face with Irene in conversation, Driver is awkward and quiet. Nice, of course, and obviously good hearted, but he lacks the confidence he displays elsewhere. He’s accomplished at his professional skills, but he’s emotionally immature in a way (it’s no surprise that he has a better verbal rapport with Benicio than he does with Irene). When Standard comes back from prison, and they hold a Welcome Home Party, Desire’s “Under Your Spell” takes over the soundtrack, and is heard plain as day through the walls into Driver’s bare abode as he tinkers with a car part. The lyrics of the emotionally earnest song reflect (and inform) Driver’s simplistic emotional state: “I don’t eat/I don’t sleep/I do nothing but think of you/You’ve got me under your spell.” The simple pop song, so many times utilized by John Hughes, is central to Driver’s understandings of emotion.
These emotional sequences, stylized with an almost abstract feeling of import and sensuality and an emphasis on the tactile are contrasted with the film (and Driver’s) other mode: a controlled, coiled tension that threatens to – and increasingly as the film goes on, does – erupt into violence. The emotionally immature Driver is still the loner hero of the piece, self-mythologizing though he may be. Refn truly excels here, and I would be surprised if there is a better action thriller all year. The opening sequence in particular is beautifully constructed. Refn understands the key to the excitement of the getaway and the chase isn’t from aggressive bombast and speed, but rather from a palpable sense of intelligent control. The slow following of a cop car, a quick pulling behind a truck and the killing of the headlights, a judicious moment of acceleration and the perfect timing of a pit stop under an overpass are how to avoid the authorities, not a street race. Even later, in the film’s other driving action sequence, it is less about speed and more about the timed use of the handbrake and a turn. The feel of total control over the vehicle is perhaps the most thrilling feeling one can have driving a car. Likewise, the fighting sequences aren’t really fights at all, but quick blasts of brute force. If there is a proper fight sequence in the film, it’s in the climax, which is depicted almost solely by shadows on the ground, intercut with a flashback to the scene before, in what is one of the best moments of pure cinema of the year. The exquisite elevator scene that’s the gateway into the third act, however, outdoes that sequence for both emotion and style. The scene rivals Wong Kar-Wai for sensual passion and Tarantino for quick turns into gruesome violence, Driver finally allowing himself to indulge in romantic fantasy and subsequently revealing the violent, psychotic side that’s almost bound to reside in a closed-off emotional adolescent. It really is stunning.
The only other Refn film I’ve seen is Valhalla Rising, a beautifully shot Viking tale that was chock full of interesting ideas but sunk by the director’s self-indulgence. Many cite that as a problem in Drive, but for me I think he found the perfect balance. He pulls off the dreamlike, emotional sequences thanks to the commitment of his actors, especially Gosling, as well his cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and the music, both the songs used and the moody, synth-heavy score by Cliff Martinez. The colour scheme is very striking as well, with its nighttime blues and purples, its daytime L.A. sun, and its splashes of a passionate, deep red throughout. I’ve given short shrift to the supporting cast, though Cranston’s nervous, sadsack, Brooks’ disturbingly calm and charming murderous gangster, and Isaac’s sympathetic ex-con are all worthy of special attention. Much has been made of the shallow, underdeveloped nature of Mulligan’s Irene, and while she spends most of the film looking doe-eyed and pretty, I think it makes sense within the emotional framework of Driver and, by extension, the film. As the wounded Driver makes his way off into the night at the end of the film, like a modern day Shane or Man With No Name, the College song comes back. Some have criticized it for being too on-the-nose lyrically, and others have even cited it as irony. I feel both of those arguments are wrong. I think it works as a not only an atmospheric, beautiful pop song, but the central lyrics of “And you proved to be a real hero and a real human being” as the wish-fulfillment of Driver himself. No matter what his fate, there was never any real question of settling down with Irene and Benicio. He knows that the lone hero never does that. The brief smirk he gave Brooks’ Bernie in the flashback during the climactic fight sequence acknowledges an understanding, and embracing, of his fate. In his mind, by driving off into the night, he’s a real hero and maybe even a real human being. He, like the film itself, is informed by a specific strand of pop culture. Not as ironic references, but as emotional truth.