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Saturday, August 12, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan
Country: United States

Style over substance is a phrase which typically signifies criticism, an accusation that the work in question is shallow and without merit. In the right hands, however, or with the right project, style can be substance itself, elevating something ordinary into something amazing. Boiled down to its basics, Drive is a pretty unremarkable crime story about a guy (the strong silent type, naturally, with bonus points for remaining unnamed) who gets drawn into a situation he didn’t ask for and becomes a one man wrecking crew in his efforts to extricate himself. In the hands of director Nicolas Winding Refn, working from a screenplay by Hossein Amini which adapts the novel of the same name by James Sallis, Drive is an elegant film, a film that calls attention to how it looks and how it moves. It's a film of high style, but beneath its fa├žade of dynamic visuals and music that seems to stand in for the restrained and repressed emotions of its characters, lies a deep, dark heart beating like a drum.

Ryan Gosling is Driver, a mechanic/movie stuntman/getaway driver. All he does is drive and his approach is exacting and restrained, built on the kind of technical precision that can only come from a laser focus. At times Driver himself seems almost mechanical, but the friendship he develops with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos) reveals the humanity beneath his hood. Whether Driver and Irene would call what they feel for each other “love” is up for debate, but it’s certainly within the realm of that first blush, and for much of the film they stand at the precipice where they might take the leap or they might back away and let the feeling fade. Even when Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), returns from prison, she and Driver are still in the process of deciding whether they’re going to jump over the edge together or not.

On his return, Standard quickly sizes up the situation between his wife and neighbor, making it clear without ever directly saying anything that he knows that there’s something there, but that he’s home now so that will be that. In a film where the dialogue is relatively minimal, the screenplay makes the most of what there is, loading sentences with double meaning without ever, somehow, making the words feel ambiguous. When Standard and Driver meet for the first time, we know exactly what’s being said even though it’s not being said directly, and the film’s ability to communicate itself in this clear, effectual way is rooted in its conception of Driver as a character. Driver (and Gosling) never gives more than what’s absolutely necessary in any given situation or interaction because a wasted word or a wasted action are just that: a waste. Whatever is needed is already there, but while it would be appropriate to call the film “stripped down,” that doesn’t mean that there’s a void. Stripped down is the style and Refn makes it deep.

Because of his feelings for Irene and Benicio, Driver comes to Standard’s aid when a gangster comes calling to collect on an ever-inflating debt racked up in prison. A heist is planned, which of course goes wrong and which was always meant to go wrong in some way (though not necessarily the way that it did), and which leads Driver back to mobsters Nino (Ron Pearlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks, giving one of the greatest performances to ever be snubbed for an Oscar nomination). Bernie is the man who has has just invested in a stock car for Driver and his friend, Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Nino is the man whose money Driver finds himself in possession of and who will take it back, but has no intention of doing so with a “thank you.” The rest will be written in blood as Driver heads for the inevitable showdown and just about every character in the movie ends up dead in the process.

The heist and subsequent conflict with mobsters is the narrative that gives Drive its structure, but the film’s story is really what happens between Driver and Irene. In a lesser film, Irene would simply be the thing that gets Driver in over his head, the motivation for him to do what he does. What Drive presents is more complex than that, creating a relationship (if it can even be called that, being so tentative) that becomes a promise that can never be fulfilled. For Irene it’s the promise of an escape from the life she’s been living with Standard, albeit a false promise as she has no idea that Driver is also involved in the criminal underworld. For Driver, too, it’s a promise of an escape into a better, happier life, but one that will remain forever out of his reach because to save Irene is to drive her away. Irene is the good in a world full of bad; she's the light in the dark, something which is expressed both through Gosling’s demeanor, which softens and becomes noticeably lighter in scenes with Mulligan, and through the visual motifs that Refn creates and which is best exemplified towards the end, in the scene in the elevator. The lighting of the scene bathes Mulligan in light and casts Gosling in shadow, and then he leans in to kiss her and for a moment he shares the glow – and then he turns around and stomps the life out of the guy who has been sent to kill them. That moment is all they get – the second their romance is consummated, it must end – and then scene closes with Irene exiting the elevator, aghast at seeing Driver for who he is, and the door literally closes between them (in one of the better homages to the close of The Godfather). She can’t be where he needs to go now, and he can never return to where she is. It’s not the narrative climax of the film, but it’s the emotional climax.

At the time it was released, Driver made Refn look like an heir to the throne of Tarantino, a filmmaker who makes work that lives and breathes with a passion for the medium itself, whose work effortlessly exudes a kind of cool so simple as to be timeless instead of ephemeral and of the moment. That feeling kind of disappeared with Refn’s follow up, Only God Forgives, which is as empty as Drive is full, and then The Neon Demon (to say nothing of Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River, which was both Refn inspired and terrible), but whatever shine may have come off Refn’s career, Drive remains a great achievement, a work of savage beauty and fascination.

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