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.

13 comments:

Craig said...

Thanks for citing a scene I'd totally forgotten. I think you're right, it does suggest something about the character, much the way "the magpie deserves our respect" cartoon does at the very end of Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Drive seems to be one of those movies that reminds us of other movies. Yet overall I thought the film was less about making direct homages than blending its influences together into fascinating hybrids. It's another movie about Movieland. And about building a film around a star. And about a lot of other things that would sound better with a Kim Morgan voiceover attached to it. I'll just say that its surface pleasures affected me deeply, like all great movies do.

Tony Dayoub said...

You're right, Jason. Sounds like you and I saw the same movie, except you liked it and I didn't. The truth is, it's not bad. My review sounds worse since so many critics are praising it like it is the Second Coming. Sam Juliano, a great writer I respect, called it one of the best films of the year. sorry, but no. I don't mind homages, tributes, movie references or stylistic flourishes (even when they are largely the whole point of the film). But a mood picture has to at least make me feel something beyond clinical detachment. Recently, Glenn Kenny recalled J. Hoberman's review of BLOOD SIMPLE, where he said it had the "soul of a resumé." Right or wrong as he might be about the Coens, it's a description I can't shake when thinking of DRIVE.

"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.'"

Yes, this is what kept taking me out of the movie, Here, it seemed more unnatural than any of the pregnant pauses characteristic of similar genre pieces. It struck me as either a) amateurish, or b) a failed attempt at parody, neither of which won me over.

However, I'll give credit to Sigel for his lush cinematography and Martinez for his evocative score. I'll also concede that Refn is a talent worth keeping an eye on.

Sam Juliano said...

Tony, thanks very much for mentioning me in that way. I consider you (and Jason) very great writers, and have learned quite a bit from your review and the one here at The Cooler. I know Jason has the right tendency to reign in unbridled enthusiasm, which often allows flaws a free pass. I fully understand and respect the issues that may well mitigate against the larger picture and will allow for the passage of time to see how well this holds up, if indeed it does.

Craig said...

As I wrote in my review, I find elements of the film problematic. It's a movie I struggle with. Happily, I find that the movies I struggle with ("Inglourious Basterds," "Certified Copy," et al) to be the ones that endure in my memory and improve over time. We'll see how this one plays out.

Jake said...

I agree with Craig: I think divvying up Drive into a series of homages, as some have, doesn't really get at how it combines its influences (like I said, it rather nicely connects the start of Michael Mann's moral and aesthetic craft to his current style). It's a film made almost entirely of surface pleasures yet there are enough suggestive touches and unspoken histories to give it at least a taste of humanity. Apparently Oscar Isaac hashed out a whole backstory for Standard's involvement with crime that, unless I've just totally forgotten, isn't in the film, but Isaac still carries the scars from his made-up past and fleshes out Standard into an actually decent guy despite the rote, almost predestined role he plays in the story.

As for Albert Brooks (and this is kind of a response to the comment you left on my piece), I don't think he's getting plaudits just for playing against type so much as playing the character against its type. You mention his lack of menace, and I agree to an extent; I don't think he oozes evil so much as exists as the endpoint of the film's attempts to hollow out and strip down everything. Brooks has been stripped of too much, and even when he says something that is a joke (his drippingly ironic response to Driver saying his hands are dirty), Brooks doesn't say it to be funny and Bernie wouldn't recognize it as humorous even if Brooks did.

There's something scary about that kind of void, and the fact that his chief emotion seems to be one of exasperated annoyance I think works better for him than, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman going against type but with a stereotypically villainous role in Mission Impossible 3. Like that wig he sports, Brooks is at some balancing point between composed and wild that gives him an ambiguity that works. I can't quite explain why Brooks' performance worked so well for me, but it stuck in my mind like few other this year.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Drive seems to be one of those movies that reminds us of other movies. Yet overall I thought the film was less about making direct homages than blending its influences together into fascinating hybrids.

I wouldn't disagree with that. And obviously the influences for Drive go beyond Mann. I think the film is up front with its allusions (not trying to pretend originality), but it does carve out its own atmospheric space.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: But a mood picture has to at least make me feel something beyond clinical detachment. Recently, Glenn Kenny recalled J. Hoberman's review of BLOOD SIMPLE, where he said it had the "soul of a resumé." Right or wrong as he might be about the Coens, it's a description I can't shake when thinking of DRIVE.

Yeah, it's here where we differ. I didn't feel detached; I was brought in by the atmosphere, which is created mostly through the lighting/color and the music/sound. (As I said to Jake at his blog, the music/sound is so critical to Drive's atmosphere that I considered scrapping this whole review to put more focus on the soundtrack.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sam: Thank you very much for the compliments. My gut tells me that Drive won't age as a "great" film but as a "memorable" one, which is no small thing. And many would say there's no difference.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jake: There's something scary about that kind of void, and the fact that his chief emotion seems to be one of exasperated annoyance I think works better for him than, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman going against type but with a stereotypically villainous role in Mission Impossible 3. Like that wig he sports, Brooks is at some balancing point between composed and wild that gives him an ambiguity that works. I can't quite explain why Brooks' performance worked so well for me, but it stuck in my mind like few other this year.

I think that's a pretty good articulation. It's not enough to make me feel it (which is the responsibility of the film, not you), but it at least puts into works what you're seeing. Nice job.

As context for everyone else: Having avoided all chatter around this film, it wasn't until I read Jake's review that I learned Brooks has been getting raves for his performance. And that obviously surprised me, given my review. I'm still surprised, frankly.

Hokahey said...

This is an eloquent piece, Jason, much more eloquent than Drive

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.

Well, said, and I agree. I just felt the atmosphere was ruined by the last third of the film.

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.

This is superb! Nice writing! I agree. At first, I liked the Driver's McQueen-like aura, then I just didn't know enough about him to care what happened to him.

I wrote the following before reading your post:

There was a lot that I liked about this movie – especially in the first half. But, in the final analysis, there just wasn't enough that I liked to be able to come away satisfied by what I had viewed.

I loved the opening heist and getaway sequence – very well done (but nothing that follows is as dazzling).

I enjoyed Ryan Gosling’s enigmatic, taciturn, God’s lonely man character of the driver – with driver’s point of view shots reminiscent of Taxi Driver and shots of him hanging around Irene, rough-hewn and taciturn, reminiscent of Steve McQueen. But then I didn’t get to know enough about him to care enough about him in the very shaky second half of the film.

I loved the scene in which he drives Irene and her son along the L.A. River and stops at that beautifully intriguing oasis – really nice!

I even enjoyed the surrealistic kiss in the elevator – just before he smashes the thug’s head in. She steps out of the elevator. It closes. Really nice.

Even when the movie got all luridly mobster-wars, I liked the scene in which the Driver threatens the hit man with the bullet and the hammer while the topless strippers sit around, carefully minding their own business.

But the whole ex-con-forced-to-do-one-last-job and the subsequent vengeful killing streak got too trite and routine for me. And some of it felt messily staged. Nino (stereotypical name for a mob guy dressed in stereotypical velour sweatshirt) comes out of the pizza joint and there’s a guy sitting in one of the few cars in the lot. Any half-assed mobster would suspect the dude in the car – especially when the car pulls out right behind him! And all this is going on while the Driver wears that ridiculous mask in a scene accompanied by a ridiculous vocal that doesn’t fit.

And throughout these parts, Albert Brooks’s and Ron Perlman’s terrible acting bring down the serious tone. The final third of the film just doesn’t give me enough to like.

Brooks tries hard to hide his wonderfully comic L.A. whine under a bland monotone; he worked for me for about two sentences. And when Bernie starts whining to Nino about his getting involved with the mob and lamenting that he didn’t get his name on the stock car – it was just too ridiculous. Meanwhile, Perlman delivered his streaks of swearing like a poor actor who is overly self-conscious that he is saying bad words. Dreadful delivery.

Jake said...

Having just seen the film a second time, I'm more convinced of a thought I had while watching it the first time: instead of Travis Bickle, the Scorsese character I'm most reminded of is Frank Pierce from Bringing Out the Dead. This too is a man teetering on psychosis, but he's in even less control than Travis, not necessarily in a mental sense but a literal one: Pierce is a passenger in the ambulances in which he rides, distorted, out-of-focus lights passing him by as he stares out the window (sound familiar right about now?). And like Frank, he's driven mad by a desire to help people, rather than Travis' God's Angry Man breakdown. Both have messiah complexes, and Gosling seems to find the middle ground between Frank's lamb and Travis' lion.

The Driver is certainly an existential character, but he's bound less to a profession than driving itself, like the protagonist of Two-Lane Blacktop. His need to drive is exploited by everyone, hence why he feels no Mann-esque tear between his love/concern for Irene and his work, because his work already takes from his being. In fact, that may be what generates that rage simmering behind those eyes until it gets fully brought out for Irene's sake.

I also found more to like about Brooks. You find him Brooksy, Hokahey finds him ridiculous, but I saw even more reluctance in his villain this time around. I think his lamenting isn't just ironic posturing; he really does seem to have wanted to bypass all of this entirely. There's a scene after his final meeting with Shannon where he just sits in his chair with a drink looking at hands with a faint whisper of Lady Macbeth's "Out, damned spot" self-judgment that grounds that brief moment of self-aggrandizement with the arms-outstretched "I was gonna have my name on a car" bit. He doesn't shy away from self-preservation, but there's a regret in him that ties in with his ironic displacement of guilt onto his victims. Everyone in this movie is stripped down to some archetypal essence—the Driver's wounded hero, Irene's baggage-laden damsel, Nino's small-time hood. What interests me is that the type Brooks stripped down seems less the gangster than the Jewish mother.

Jason Bellamy said...

Catching up on comments ...

Hokahey: Well, we share our distaste for Brooks, and we like some of the same scenes (although I wasn't crazy about the reservoir scene). It became clear to me fairly early that we weren't going to get to know much about Driver to care about him in that way. As I've argued above, it's an atmosphere piece, rather than a human story. So if the atmosphere works for you, the film does, but otherwise there's very little to cling to. No argument there.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jake: Having just seen the film a second time, I'm more convinced of a thought I had while watching it the first time: instead of Travis Bickle, the Scorsese character I'm most reminded of is Frank Pierce from Bringing Out the Dead.

It's been ages since I've seen that movie. Need to watch it again.

What interests me is that the type Brooks stripped down seems less the gangster than the Jewish mother.

That's interesting. If that's what Refn was going for, then maybe Brooks wasn't miscast at all. Whenever I see this again, I'll keep that analysis in mind. For now, I don't know, I think Refn is going for the traditional gangster and finds cuteness or shock value in it being played out by Brooks. Wish I could say it worked for me.