by HELEN GEIB and NIR SHALEV
It’s a set up straight out of the classic film noir playbook.
We never learn the man’s (Ryan Gosling) name; he’s sometimes called “the kid” or “the driver.” We learn nothing definite about his past before he arrived in LA a few years before; we infer training from the remarkable skill behind the wheel, violence from the facility with violence, and profound alienation from his self-imposed, near-total social isolation. His day job is garage mechanic. His boss (Bryan Cranston) has a side business supplying stunt cars for the movies and he does some of the stunt driving. He has his own side business as a getaway driver for small-time robbers.
When the story begins he’s moving into a new apartment (we can tell he never stays anyplace for long). Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio live a couple of doors down. Something about them breaks through the wall. Irene’s ex-con husband owes money to the wrong people; people who want him to do a robbery for them and who wouldn’t think twice about hurting his family if he turns them down. The driver decides to help in the way he knows best. It’s a set-up. He was the wrong man to cross.
The descriptor “neo noir” gets tossed around pretty lightly. Few movies have as strong a claim to it as Drive. Its Los Angeles is the city of LA noir: anonymity in the urban crowd; nondescript commercial strips and interchangeable streets; interiors dimly or harshly lit; an entertainment capital brutally stripped of its glamor. There’s the inexorability of the way everything goes wrong. Characterizations and the scenario are richly allusive to classic films noir and neo-noir: the existential dilemma at the center of Thief, the Robert Mitchum of Out of the Past, the corruption and mobster pulling the strings of the The Big Heat, the city and certain plot turns of LA Confidential, the man’s sublimated violence in A History of Violence…. The chiaroscuro lighting is mesmerizing. The driver is endlessly doubled by his own reflection.
Notwithstanding, Drive can be readily categorized but not simply summarized as neo-noir. Blended in are crucial elements derived from 1970s crime films, modern classics of urban alienation and thrilling car chases; one extraordinary sequence vividly suggests John Carpenterian horror. The romance stands out for its vital contemporaneity. What the driver experiences isn’t lust but an inchoate desire to become the father in the family photo, while Irene imagines the replacement as a wistful what-if and her husband as a nightmare of forfeiture.
The film is heavy on style but the filmmakers deftly avoid the trap of pure homage, of making a film that is only delightful style and no substance. The film is mostly style, but as well as being delightful it collaborates in creating substance. The visuals and music create mood and emotional affect, and make a critical contribution to character development. The driver is a man of few words, to say the least. The film’s look, feel, and sound combine with Gosling’s overwhelming, tightly controlled physical performance to fill out the spaces usually filled by dialogue.
On the outside, Driver (Ryan Gosling) is suave and handsome. He sports a white leather jacket with a yellow scorpion on its back and leather driving gloves, and embodies the always-cool look that Steve McQueen popularized in the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. But on the inside, he’s a sociopath that has mild tendencies to perform psychotic acts- but only when necessary. He is the film’s hero and in his own mind, he’s a superhero. The jacket, gloves, and the tendency to always look and act cool are his costume and when Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) is in trouble he decides to help out.
In the genre of film noir, when things go bad, the protagonist, even when indirectly involved, usually takes the fall. The case is similar here except that the situation is a failed double cross; that aspect of the film’s plot is rather unique and original. And when Driver finds out about the fact that he was supposed to be double crossed and figures that Irene (Carey Mulligan) might be in trouble, he channels and switches on his superhero mode. Ironically, and also rather unique is the fact that Driver, alongside with being a sociopath is also a psychopath, but not entirely. He is always aware of his actions and murder is quickly on his mind. He caves in a man’s head in an elevator and in another instance he threatens another man by applying a bullet to his forehead while holding a hammer in his other hand. Driver, our hero, is a monster and Gosling’s depiction of it is somewhat realistic. More on that paradox in a bit.
This film is an arthouse thriller and so everything that happens in it, including the way that LA looks nice and bright at night is intentionally represented as a fever dream. The audience is in a constant state of dreamlike delirium because we see most of the film’s happenings through the point of view of its protagonist, the sociopath. And director Nicolas Winding Refn goes for a complete arthouse look throughout.
There is a scene where Driver embraces Irene in the elevator of their apartment building. The lights in the elevator dim and the world fades away for almost a minute as the two of them share a kiss. Then comes a brutal, quasi-defensive assault on an enemy that’s shot entirely in slow motion. When Irene sees the look on Driver’s face, the look of anger and bad intentions, she begins to wonder exactly who she’d been falling in love with. The film is artsy in style and spirit and yet, this is how a real superhero situation would happen in our actual universe. Hence, the paradox of the character of Driver: he’s a monstrous aggressor but he’s the hero of this grim tale and his intentions are always good. Some would say that he’s representative of a knight in shining armor but I’d say that he’s more like an interpretation of an angel, with one wing always dipped in blood.
I walked into this film with high hopes and walking out of it, I felt amazing because this is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks are probably going to receive Oscar nominations for their excellent performances and I hope that Refn, who won Best Director earlier in the year at the Cannes Film Festival, and the cinematography receive Oscar nods as well. The film was shot digitally but as a result, Refn had managed to paint the city of LA with almost pastel-like colors in order to add to the state of delirium that he’d been inflicting upon his audience from the start of the picture.
Refn isn’t well known but should be; he’s shot three films that are available to be watched in North America and all three are excellent. Bronson (2008) is hyper-stylized and launched Tom Hardy on his path to elite Hollywood status and Valhalla Rising (2009) is a powerful, brutal, and gorgeous existentialist take on Norse mythology and is very reminiscent of the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. Drive is an original film but it is similar to Peter Yates’ Bullitt (1968) and Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) in one way: they all feature at least one spectacular car chase.