Drive (United States, 2011)
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini, based on the book by James Sallis
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac
A nameless, taciturn auto mechanic with a shadowy past and superhuman driving ability makes his money running getaway cars for robberies. Credited only as Driver (Ryan Gosling), he is an unassuming, generally aloof mystery man, living alone in a tiny, sparingly-furnished apartment and barely interacting with those around him, save for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), his boss at the garage.
He has crafted for himself a persona, a character through which he can live his life of crime. He has a uniform: a silver satin jacket with a yellow scorpion on the back, brown leather driving gloves, and gradient-tinted sunglasses. He has a well-rehearsed spiel dictating – not negotiating – his conditions of employment: he does not get involved in the robberies, and he does not carry a gun. He’s not a villain. He’s a man of principles, a man of skill. He is the hero.
Irene (Carey Mulligan), a gamine, delicate flower of a woman, lives a few doors down from Driver with her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), whose father is in prison. Driver initially avoids her, sharing awkwardly silent encounters in elevators and hallways, but feels compelled to come to the rescue when he sees her stranded at a supermarket, her car broken down. He gives her and Benicio a lift home, and they begin to chip away at the barriers Driver had erected around himself.
There are fleeting moments of platonic intimacy between Driver and Irene, as much as he capable of it, but by the time Benicio’s father Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison and returns home a week later, the mother and child are firmly ensconced in Driver’s hero fantasy as vulnerable townspeople in need of protection. When Standard is beaten and his family threatened in connection with an unpaid protection fee from his days in prison, Driver offers his services to help Standard pay off his debt and secure the family’s safety. But, in the words of the film’s tag line, there are no clean getaways.
Driver is one of cinema’s great ambiguously-motivated good guys. Like Taxi Driver‘s misanthropic anti-hero Travis Bickle, who commits unspeakable horrors in fulfillment of a selfish delusion and is perceived an altruistic hero, Driver has built up a warped fairytale in his head with himself as the central character, a movie superhero saving a damsel in distress from the horrors of the criminal underworld she finds herself mired in.
But while Scorsese’s rather talkative Bickle makes it clear that he has at least one serious psychological issue, Driver allows us no such luxurious insights into his character. He’s a closed book – with a closed mouth – who at first seems like a well-balanced if quiet man involved in some criminal enterprises on the side, but gradually reveals that behind the jacket, behind the gloves, behind the shades there is a man capable of committing acts of such viciousness (and with such comfort) that he could be nothing other than a psychopath.
Or could he?
He may, like Bickle, commit his violence in pursuit of a narcissistic and misguided ideal of himself, or he may just be doing what is necessary to protect an innocent family. Does he really care about Irene, or does he only care about the idea of Irene? For his fairytale to play out he must romantically engage her, bond with her impressionable young son, even make friends with her husband when he arrives fresh out of jail, whether he’s capable of truly feeling affinity or even empathy for another human being or not. But perhaps he truly does feel these things, and it’s only coincidence that what he’s really feeling is what he would have projected if he were playing out the superhero fantasy.
We discover the truth when his plans get blown away and he must make a monumental decision: does he commit an act of genuine good at his own expense, or does he follow his superhero narrative to its explosive conclusion, upholding the complex ruse he’s devised to justify his violent actions?
The answer to that question manifests itself in one of the most truly bittersweet endings to a film I can remember. Either way there will be no true redemption, no fairytale ending, no happily ever after, but it will leave you gasping for more.
Everything about Drive just oozes cool. The retro opening titles rendered in electric pink Brush Script, the soundtrack’s wonderfully expressive synth pop and ambient electro, Driver’s scorpion-emblazoned jacket and leather driving gloves; this is the zenith of western culture’s repurposing of 1980s style for the current age. (The deliciously 80s-sounding songs on the soundtrack were not written for the film but are actually extant pop tunes, released between 2007 and 2010.)
A magnificent set piece sets the mood of the film from its first frames: at once deliriously bombastic and tensely controlled, it is a car chase without a single explosion, gunshot or rolled car, but it paints the perfect portrait of Driver’s genius behind the wheel and will be remembered as one of the great car chases. Elegant, sweeping aerial shots of Los Angeles’ neon nights pervade the film and are exquisite, remarkable considering Nicolas Winding Refn, the film’s director, is a Dutchman who has never lived in L.A., but the city has never looked this good on film.
Performances are uniformly powerhouse, from Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks as a pair of Jewish mob heavyweights to Christina Hendricks in her brief but magnetic turn as a small-time crook’s hanger-on. But the highest praise must be reserved for Gosling as Driver, an emotional blank slate with the capacity to inflict horrific violence without so much as breaking a sweat.
This extraordinary neo noir may be the most perfectly-formed argument in favour of the notion that style is substance. As director Jean-Luc Godard said, style is the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, and cannot be separated.
In terms of content, Drive is not a break from the past of any significant magnitude, in fact it wears its narrative influences quite conspicuously on its sleeve (Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, Walter Hill’s The Driver); but it is a work of such formal beauty and perfect execution that it is almost unfair to compare it to this century’s thrillers, for it is such a cut above.