Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
The director’s kinkiest film in a filmography that knows Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive establishes itself as the ultimate fruition of his fetishistic tendencies reigning them in through alternating maximalist and minimalist brushes. It’s also his tightest film, one that only really becomes derivative during extended sequences of silence between characters or single characters that actually, miraculously bear character development. The film is made from the building blocks of several conflicting genres making it as Walter Chaw states in his review, “devilishly difficult to pin down.” Refn has made a film that works most successfully as a layered criticism of the car heist flick characterized in the aughties by the Fast and Furious franchise and in the process has made a film that works outside of that reading and stands on its own as the true sister film to John Woo’s The Killer. Every facet of the film is stream-lined to its core (character, plot, action, etc.) and after all the cutting of the fat, Refn’s fetishistic tendencies and genre influences rise up.
The genre influences at work in this film clash on a fundamental level that makes the “working” of the film astonishing. Ryan Gosling (Driver) has stated in interviews that this is his superhero film and that he and Refn wanted to make a John Hughes film that was gruesome like cotton candy covered in blood. Refn has also stated that this film is a fairy tale, albeit one built on a foundation of heist film convention. Critics have suggested the Samurai film in Gosling stoic performance. And then there is the homage to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and the dedication to Alejandro Jodorowsky, which sees the film, not distaining mainstream filmmaking, but preferring avant-garde cinema as a more expressive and interesting alternative. Cataloguing this, we see: Superhero, Teen, Car Heist, Samurai, Avant-Garde, and of course, Romance and Noir. When I first saw the film (I’ve seen in twice) I disliked the film because it felt to me that Refn had bit off more than he could chew, or more specifically, that the genres he had picked to play with did not attract to one another by electric charge. After seeing the film again, I see the film at face value as a fairy tale about a white knight that protects a powerless damsel and vanquishes the enemies. But this simple tale has tons of fetishistic ideas popping off of it at any given moment and the diverse genre elements do not bump heads but rather, make way for each other.
The samurai view holds up well in that, like a white knight, Driver does not look after his own self-interests but protects the innocents of his community (Irene (a lovely Carey Mulligan) and Benecio (Kaden Leos)). Driver’s economic situation is also firmly rooted in Samurai protagonist convention. Driver has three jobs: heist driver, mechanic and Hollywood stuntman (in that order) that reinforce the samurai film view of a subsistent economy providing for a monastic life.
Speaking of monasticism, Driver and Irene never consummate their romance with anything more than a kiss, which has a few potential readings. For one, it neglects the samurai view as samurais are not traditionally supposed to give into lustful inclinations, but serve only to the support of the community. A romantic move is anti-samurai because it introduces a conflict of interest for the protagonist who keeps an emotional arms distance from individuals while serving the community. This is one case in many, in which the film subverts genre conventions or perhaps drops a genre’s rules in favor of another. In this case, the kiss in the elevator works under the romantic and noir conventions but seems very John Hughes. It also works as film criticism in that it indicts the PG-13 car heist film for feigning shallow sex between its characters. Drive is the kind of film that is so authentically fetishistic that it actually looks down on the typical car heist film for it’s trashy portrayal of sex as ultimate expression of love. The lone kiss in Drive carries more emotional weight than twenty PG-13 and even R-rated sex scenes.
Back to the genre reading, Chaw said that the film worked as “boilerplate noir” which is also true in the sense that the locations are seedy, the villains are generally unforgiveable monsters (especially Nino (Ron Pearlman)) and the protagonist is drawn into the mire by a woman. These elements would make Drive sit comfortably along the lines of 1950s film noir. But Irene is not a femme fatale in the traditional sense. Driver is drawn to her because of her undeniable sweetness but also because he sees a nice family life that he could inhibit in the wake of Standard’s (Oscar Isaac) demise, which after his royal ass kicking in the parking garage, quickly becomes a foregone conclusion. Standard and the Shannon (Bryan Cranston, in an inverse of his Breaking Bad role of Walter White) are the weakest characters in the film, even more so than the seemingly defenseless Irene. Irene is stronger than both men because she at least is able to draw protection from Driver while the weaker men have no such protection. She also exhibits power over Driver when she slaps him, her sole attack that though quickly shrugged off by Driver nevertheless carries weight.
The noir, specifically boilerplate noir reading (and the fairy tale reading) also works in that the film exists in a strange sort of vacuum that only shows the outside world of Los Angeles in the beginning heist sequence with reference to the Los Angeles Clippers game on television and radio. Other than that, the film feels claustrophobic. Even shots of the Los Angeles skyline that would be invigorating in other films serve to show the limits of the characters’ environment. The characters are trapped in the doom-laden LA due to income-inhibitions. They live in LA and they have no other choice. Notice this when Bernie Rose (Albert Brookes) asks Shannon if he is going somewhere and the Shannon weakly states that he was “thinking about it.”
Chaw also asserts that the film is apocalyptic, like Taxi Driver directed by Michael Mann in the 80s. I don’t necessarily agree with this reading, as it seems somewhat limiting. I think the film is fatalistic in the sense that the events of the film seem like foregone conclusions after the fact (as exhibited in the various cross cutting of scenes that show present actions cut against the past (for example, the final “duel” between Driver and Bernie cut against their final conversation)). I don’t view the film as apocalyptic either because the events of the film suggest that life will go on for the surviving characters. Benecio is fatherless but he was always essentially fatherless, ditto Irene. Driver continues to drift through the streets just as he started. Two mobsters have died but more will take their place as Nino briefly references in the pizza parlor scene with Bernie and Cook (James Biberi). I do see what Chaw means though as Taxi Driver via Mann. Drive’s Driver lacks the overt passion of Travis Bickle, and is not as human. In this way he is more like the absolute ideal of a hero like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Mann’s absolute ideal of the Good (hero) as ultimate badass. Through this logic, Irene is the absolute damsel and the mobsters are the absolute Bad (villains). Standard and the Shannon are the Ugly (human). This view of the characters helps to solidify the film as film criticism by making the characters not so much symbols as archetypes of the car heist film, the samurai film, the western, etc. Despite all the evidence of the film is noir, Driver never becomes tainted enough in the process to drop him from his status as Divine Good to Ugly (human). Conversely, his survival through all of the film’s brutal violence works to further deify him. After all the discussion on Drive’s genre conventions, it becomes evident that like the works of Tarantino, Drive is many genres supported primarily on the samurai and car heist film put into a blender and blended to puree until it becomes one unified piece and no longer totally resembles any specific genre.
The violence in the film is disturbing and relentless in a way that resembles the hyper-violent films of the early aughties and reminds me of Scorsese’s Casino. Gosling stated that he loved experiencing the violence of Refn’s Valhalla Rising in the commune of a theater where the audience vocalized their collective shock of the violence with laughter. Indeed Refn’s violence is so graphic and almost over-the-top that the safest coping mechanism is laughter. The use of violence in Drive is perhaps the greatest support for the fact that this is film as film criticism because Refn seems to be saying that the violence in the general PG-13 car heist film is too sugar-coated and thus, wholly unauthentic. There is no middle ground to Refn. In general, it seems that the heist film is generally considered less violent and potentially more moral than the gangster film because of a Robin Hood complex. Theft is simply theft and doesn’t involve the loss of human life—though heist films are often violent or suggest violence through tension. Still the gangster film is more operatic: the morals start out in black and white and become grey while the heist film’s morals start out grey and become greyer or separate back into blacks and whites. The violence in Drive is fetishistic, one of Refn’s primarily fetishes in the film, but it is used as accusation of the erroneousness of the PG-13 car heist film. Refn states that for film there are no limits and suggests through the violence in this film, that the soft violence of those other films is somewhat immoral because of its untruthfulness. Find this in every scene of maximum violence that looks shows the violence from a safe distance, and then cuts to a “money shot” that looks directly at the horror of the act—evident in the elevator scene and the pizza parlor scene with Bernie, Nino and Cook.
The other fetishes in the film shift abruptly from hyper feminine to hyper masculine and exist as one unique tone. As Chaw stated in his review, the film fetishes work which has gained mainstream support from the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and the artistic canon of Michael Mann which gets off to the very operations of its characters and does so in ways that are utterly cinematic. The opening heist in Drive is stimulating in the tightness and precision of its operation. There is not an ounce of fat on this sequence. The fetishization of work is masculine by nature, but Driver is more of a hyper-feminized masculine character and in his own strange way, becomes the ultimate male Tarantino protagonist. Indeed Gosling is more James Dean than Marlon Brando in his acting in this film and in his general persona. He is, like Dean, much fairer than Brando in more aspects than complexion. I’d like to update Chaw’s statement of Drive as Taxi Driver via Mann in the 80s to Drive as Taxi Driver via Mann in the 80s in drag. The film’s soundtrack is hyper feminized 80s synth pop, the colors are neon; the writing of the title sequence is hot pink. Going further, Refn has stated that the lack of Driver’s dialogue was used not to harden the character, but instead to make him weaker and thus more feminized along archetypal standards. And yet, Driver is distinctly not homosexual. His control over Blanche (Christina Hendricks, who like the film, makes a lot out of little) is hyper-masculine in its brutishness. Consider that he bears over her with utter control and while wearing feminized leather driving gloves. Scenes like this that contain endless layers make this film a pop masterpiece of sorts.
This film is also surprisingly subtle even though elements like the hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine elements are pushed to the maximum. The sound-design is pushed to the maximum as well—the gunshots go off like canons, the flesh slices are louder than in most other films. And yet, the performances are generally very still, especially between Driver and Irene where the tiny gestures speak volumes. Drive is a startling oddity of a film. Despite its Godardian approach to the thin material as film as film criticism, Drive contains moments of real cinematic poetry on aesthetic and emotional levels. When Driver drowns Nino in the ocean, the film is haunting and opaque and even that scene nods to genre conventions—specifically the slasher films of the 80s. The scene with Driver, Irene and Benicio by the creek at the end of the dam are simply gorgeous. These scenes raise the film above all of its convolutions into the gorgeous sadness and raw romantic poetry of works like Woo’s The Killer. At the end of the day Drive works like the melodramatic sappy and sad singing of the Woo film’s blind girl—its tempting to dismiss it but the longer it goes on, the more vital it becomes. It’s a difficult film that you could play without volume in a club or at a house party and it’s made by a man who has the right ideas and executes them in the right way. Ultimately there’s a good reason that Refn won best director at the Palm d’Or and The Tree of Life won best picture. He directs the hell out of Drive and I can’t wait to see what he has in store next.