365 Days, 100 Films #69b – Drive (2011)

Drive, 2011.

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman.

Drive Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling is a stuntman / getaway driver who becomes tangled in the after effects of a robbery gone wrong.

Drive Ryan Gosling
He just rode into town about six years ago, remarks Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a limping mechanic. Walked right up in here and asked for a job. And then I saw what he could do with an automobile; well…I straight there gave it him.

This Driver (Ryan Gosling) never gets a name. He hardly speaks either, never wasting a word and leaving lengthy pauses before replying to anything. He ain’t in a hurry. Strange, for a getaway driver.

A toothpick constantly hangs from between his lips. He doesn’t smoke, so something had to go there to complete the image. He is never without his satin sports jacket with a scorpion embroidered on its back.

As well as being a getaway driver, he also moonlights as a stuntman for the pictures. Or is it the other way around. You have me for five minutes, he clearly outlines to each of his clients. Anything that happens in those five minutes, I’m yours. A minute either side is not my problem.

The Driver seems experienced, as though he’s been doing this for some time. You’d never know, though. His past is as absent as his name. While almost every other major character reveals a little of their history (“You ever heard the story of how me and your mum first met?”), the driver’s background remains mute. You have to fill it in yourself. You assume stuff. The imagination can be a powerful thing when faced with such ambiguity.

The car chases in Drive, of which there are only two, are masterly crafted. Car chases – just like a fight sequence, action scene or lightsaber battle – need their own internal narrative; otherwise they’re just a series of ill-connected, spectacular set-pieces. Nicolas Winding Refn takes both time and care to establish what is going on, why what is going on is important and where everything going on is in relation to each other. Each car chase is imbued with its own story. It adds to the tension – that you actually care what’s going on.

This sounds obvious. This is how the majority of action scene should be structured. But these days, particularly in mainstream cinema, they aren’t. Try and make sense of a robot battle from a Transformers film. Attempt to follow what’s happening in one from the Bourne films. Even The Dark Knight, to be blasphemous, holds little regard for spatial continuity or visual grammar (see this deconstruction of the Harvey Dent transportation scene). From Michael Bay to Christopher Nolan, mainstream action directors are more concerned with portraying the characters’ disorientation during these scenes instead of making them comprehensible. Drive is a breath of fresh/old, reliable air.

It’s Shannon who secures the Driver his stuntman gigs and getaway jobs. But what he really wants for the Driver is to enter him in some big league races. They’ll have to start small, of course, on some local city circuits. But have you seen the kid drive? He’ll ace those in no time.

Meanwhile, the Driver develops a relationship with his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan). This is told not in dialogue, because the Driver isn’t all that talky, but in music-accompanied montages. They stare at each other a lot and smile in slow motion. They’re evidentially having fun, but it’s hard to tell what’s so amusing in a montage pieced together of half-memories, like some hipster experimenting with one of their new over-exposure camera apps.

Initially it feels as though there isn’t much substance, but it must all be subliminal. Because as soon as the second half of the film hits, which is far superior, you appreciate those music-accompanied, sun-bleached montages. They were happier times.

Irene has a son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). The way the Driver plays with him, humours him, evokes the bond between Alan Ladd and young Joey in Shane. After all, he’s a man with no name that rode into town six years ago. Gosling shares his heroic, blue eyes with Henry Fonda. Drive is a Western; the horses are 1973 Chevrolet Chevelles.

How do you know which one’s the bad guy?, the Driver asks Benicio as they sit together watching cartoons. You just know, the kid metaphysically replies.

A photo of Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), hangs above the cooker like a time bomb. He’s in prison for something that’s never revealed. It is he who catalyses the transition from the first half of the film to the second.

Standard owes a couple of guys protection money. One day it was $1,000, and now they’re saying it’s $20,000. There’s no telling what it’ll be tomorrow. The Driver accepts a job from the protection racket guys. He outlines his usual shtick (“you have me for a five minute window”). “What’s your fee?” That Irene and Benicio are never bothered again.

The film then becomes an intricately plotted crime story, as a pawnshop stick up goes wrong. There are double crosses and graphic gore. Refn has said Drive is a tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky of sorts. The exploding heads in slow motion certainly owe a debt to him.

There is a shift in what genre Drive pays homage to here. The Western elements dissipate and form the tropes of Noir. The Driver becomes a man on the run. There’s even a redheaded femme fatale (Christina Hendricks). But instead of the smoky black and white, there are the neon pinks and electro beats of a 80s VHS cover. It’s a Neon Noir, and quite unlike anything else you’ll see for a while.


Oli Davis

365 Days, 100 Films