“I don’t carry a gun, I drive”
Drive is one cool, slick movie. And it knows how cool and slick it is. It knows it has the moves. It knows it’s got shapely curves that you’d like to stare at all day long. It’s so confident it doesn’t even have to say that much to have your complete attention. Despite its self-assurance, the film is not cocky, which makes it all the more charming. It is elegant and graceful, uncommon traits for a modern American film. Its sensibilities are more European, which isn’t surprising since the director is Danish wunderkind Nicolas Winding Refn. I have not yet seen any of the previous films—like the acclaimed Valhalla Rising—but his reputation precedes him.
A quiet loner (known only as Driver) who works as a stunt driver—and moonlights as a get-away driver—gets involved with a nice lady (Irene), her son, and a bunch of nasty thugs. There are some familiar film noir elements—bad guys, money, a hero to take the fall for an innocent damsel in distress—but the film navigates these familiar waters with such style and self-assurance that you can’t help but be charmed.
The characters don’t say much, and they don’t need too; their few words carry tremendous weight, and cost them so much. In this sort of film noir, the characters—playing an intense game of cat and mouse—usually have poker faces to keep the other characters, and the audience, guessing about how they feel and what they want. But there is no guile in Drive. The main players wear their feelings and intentions on their sleeves. If they are not explicit in their wording, their demeanor betrays them none-the-less.
There is a sweetness and quite exhilaration to the opening scenes of the Driver’s befriending of Irene and her son. The artsy slow motion and dazzling lens-flares would be too much if it weren’t for the soundtrack—disarmingly nostalgic songs accompany the imagery and the whole thing comes together perfectly. These early scenes are achingly Romantic—in the classical sense. The style is blatant, sure, but this film isn’t just about what’s happening, it’s about how we are being told what’s happening. This sort of post-modernism often comes across as cheap and gimmicky, but Drive makes it work. How exactly? Well, it’s hard to say. There is alchemy at work in successful art, and to deconstruct it too thoroughly does it—and us—a great disservice.
Not too far in, Irene’s husband, Standard, comes back from jail, and tension begins to mount. He is a reformed thug, a man who has done bad and wants to atone. The first we meet Standard is during his welcome-home party. You can see in his face how grateful he is to be home and surrounded by friendly faces. He comes from a bad place, and the bad people haven’t completely gone from his life. He gives a toast that is only six sentences long, but there are years of history in his face and his words:
“We’re here celebrating, but it’s a shameful thing—what I did. And I have a lot of making up to do—to everyone. But second chances are rare, right? And that’s worth celebrating. So I want to make a toast to that lady right there. Thanks for staying.”
This is fine writing—simple, direct, and potent.
The film starts off languorous, but somewhere in the middle the film becomes suspenseful and violent. The first two instances of violence are short and relatively gentle, but the film quickly bares its full set of teeth, and they are unnervingly sharp. Because the film is so elegant and meditative—none of that overwrought Michael Bay stuff—the brutality of the violence is truly disturbing. It shocks you with the plain horror of a face getting kicked in or a fork jabbed into an eye. You don’t really see all that much, but you feel it, and it is awful!
Drive is very old-fashioned, especially with regard to gender roles, but it seems decidedly self-conscious about this aspect of itself. I noticed this as early as the opening titles, which are in pink mistral font—a colour and typeface that is usually reserved for “chick flicks.” Our main character is a ruggedly masculine—albeit soft-spoken—and self-assured hero. His is the first voice we hear as he explains the firm rules that accompany his services. The decidedly feminine cursive font perfectly offsets the masculinity that dominates the story. A vulnerable and helpless woman and child find themselves at the mercy of the men around them. Irene (a damsel in distress) is caught up in a dangerous situation because of her husband’s lifestyle, and is finally rescued by a man (a knight in shining armor). Her fate is not decided by her own ambitions; we don’t even really know what her ambitions are.
The only other women seen in the film are a pawn in a botched robbery, and some naked, and seemingly comatose, strippers at a club. When the Driver attacks one of the thugs in their dressing room, the strippers sit dead-faced and complacent as he pummels the man at their feet. They, like Irene, do very little. This isn’t their concern, and it isn’t their world. The film isn’t really dismissive of women as decorative baubles; the story simply isn’t about them. It is about the Driver and his plight. Even Irene is just an iconic representation—a good-natured mother and wife—a familial ideal that the Driver yearns for but can never attain.
Drive is a rare gem—artsy, suspenseful, and emotionally resonant.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book)
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston