Sunday, September 18, 2011
There’s Something Inside Him: Drive
Given that he wears a white jacket with a big gold scorpion embroidered on the back, and at one point alludes to the parable of the scorpion and the frog, it’s tempting to compare Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive to the clawed venomous arthropod he so clearly reveres. Yet the more I reflected on the film, the more Gosling’s character reminded me of a shark. He’s silent, dangerous and seemingly indifferent to the world around him. He’s streamlined, with a sharp nose and unrevealing eyes. He’s forever moving forward, as if he has no fear of what’s in front of him, as if he has no concept of what it would mean to stop. And underneath a sometimes docile exterior, he’s hardwired for violence, a toothpick dangling from his mouth as if ready to remove the flesh of his victims from his maw. It was only by thinking of Gosling’s character this way that I remembered the seemingly innocuous scene that explains him. Early in the film, Gosling’s unnamed character sits on a couch with the young son of his neighbor and watches cartoons. “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?” Gosling’s character asks in the direction of the TV. “A bad guy,” the boy answers without hesitation, “he’s a shark.” Gosling’s character chews on that analysis. “There are no good sharks?”
That’s the rhetorical question that unlocks this film. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive is a stylish throwback to Michael Mann’s Thief, with potent doses of Manhunter, Heat and Collateral mixed in. It’s a mood picture, frequently unfolding under the glow of the Los Angeles skyline (as eerily magical here as ever), or in romantically lit hallways and garages. One notable scene plays out in a strip club dressing room in front of topless dancers who sit statue-still in front of their makeup mirrors while a man is gruesomely beaten a few feet away, careful not to ruin the aesthetic by moving. The film’s soundtrack is a mix of earnest ‘80s-synth-inspired tunes and original pieces by Cliff Martinez (Solaris) that remind of the Tangerine Dream soundtrack for Thief and some of the Kronos Quartet pieces from Heat, respectively. Like many a Mann film, in particular Heat and Public Enemies, the sound design emphasizes the noise of violence, be it the firing of a gun, the slashing of a knife or, in one ill advised case, the slapping of a face. But for all the ways that Refn’s film stirs memories of Mann like a Quentin Tarantino picture evokes Sergio Leone, it lacks the same depth of character. Mann’s films, for all their style, are always powerful examinations of men wrestling with themselves; internal dramas brought to life through physical action. Drive nods in that direction, but it never commits, which is why Gosling’s character’s motivations are best understood only in retrospect. He’s profoundly unknowable.
I say that less in criticism than as a point of clarification. Drive, adapted by Hossein Amini from a book by James Sallis, is a spare novella compared to Mann’s melodramatic epics, in terms of both complexity and running time (100 minutes). Throughout, Gosling commands the screen as the unnamed stunt-driver-by-day/getaway-driver-by-night, part Frank Bullitt, part Travis Bickle, but he never approaches Thief’s Frank or Heat’s Neil, simply because the narrative is too one-dimensional to allow it. In a Mann film, Gosling’s “Driver” would be torn between his affections for his neighbor, Carey Mulligan’s Irene, and his addiction to his profession, his need to feel the rush of another job. In Drive, however, Gosling’s character’s illegal trade is the means by which he proves his affection to Irene, first by trying to help her husband pay back his debt, and then by trying to protect Irene and her son from retaliation. This subtle change in design, in which “Driver” is enabled to be the man he’s always been, robs the film of some dramatic conflict, turning “Driver” into little more than a drifter, consumed by the smell of blood in the water, to go back to the shark metaphor, but lacking any master plan. If not for Gosling’s irrepressible intensity and the Refn’s heavy-handed application of style, Drive would be an action film in the truest sense, because physical gestures would be just about all we’d have to hold on to.
Instead, Drive is a movie that finds whatever substance it has through its deliberate style, announcing its intent immediately through an opening titles sequence of slanted purple text that seems to allude to Purple Rain, Miami Vice and, yep, Thief, all at once. Drive isn’t set in the ‘80s, to be clear, it just finds its personality there, though with his scorpion jacket and leather gloves Gosling’s character does seem injected from some other era. Instead of a backstory, he has an aura, evoked through the icy confidence of his gaze, the tightness of his jaw and the rumbling of a car engine. As his lack of a name suggests, “Driver” identifies with his trade. That’s his essence. Which helps explain why he often seems spiritless when not behind the wheel. His early interactions with Irene drift from subtly sexually charged to awkward, and I’m not sure the latter is always by design. More than once Refn seems to be pulling a Sofia Coppola, hoping that by holding a shot long enough a sense of consequence might come through. It works sometimes, but there are moments in which Gosling and Mulligan, capable actors both, seem to be waiting for Refn to call “cut.”
Mulligan is criminally underused; with no part to play, she smiles and touches her lips. Christina Hendricks has even less to work with. They do their jobs just by showing up. Spectacularly miscast, however, is Albert Brooks, whose mafia-type heavy is neither terrifying nor funny, just Albert Brooksy. No matter how many times Refn shoots Brooks from below and no matter how well his character wields a blade, Brooks only postures toughness, never oozes it, and considering all the violence assigned to his character via the narrative, that’s damning. Still, such shortcomings matter little because Drive isn’t a character picture. Refn is in it for atmosphere, and in its best moments Drive’s tension and coiled rage vibrate off the screen like roaring car engine. Its action sequences are gripping, and its fight scenes often graphic (though not without restraint). And while Refn’s car chases could stand to include an establishing shot or two to give us a sense of the geography, each turn of the wheel seems filled with consequence; nothing cheap.
Drive is one of those films that comes to the precipice of greatness so many times that its failure to take the leap can be distracting. But approached according to its own intentions, it’s a thing to admire. Fittingly, watching Drive is not unlike driving at night with the radio pumping: we are in the world and removed from it, sitting still but moving, focused on the journey and lost in the music. Gosling takes from the main character all that there is to be found, contributing graceful swagger and sex appeal to what so easily could have been nothing more than maniacal wrath. There’s a moment past the midway point of the film in which his character looks at Mulligan’s Irene with a mixture of self-awareness and confusion. It’s the expression of a man who knows he’s a shark and wonders if he can be a good one. I understand that now. Before, I simply felt it.