I'm still wrestling with my feelings about Drive, or at least, I'm a little bit in suspended animation, feeling I need to see the film again, and eager to, yet still afraid of its more violent moments. This is the first film I've seen from director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose work also includes Bronsan, starring Tom Hardy from Inception and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, and I'm always intrigued to see a film from a director I'm not familiar with.
Watching Drive, I can tell Refn is a real movie lover, and that Drive is a movie for people who love movies as well. Refin, working from a script adapted by Hossein Amini by a novel from James Sallis, creates a universe where both old school and neo-noir exist in the same breath, and where Gosling plays the archetypal "strong, silent type." Comparisons have already been made to the work of Michael Mann, director of Heat and Collateral, as well as to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Both comparisons are apt. The photography immerses the audience in the nightime L.A landscape, similar to Mann's work. Also, like Mann, it's an examination of a professional who deals in criminal activity. In this case it's the character known as Driver (Gosling), a L.A stuntman by day and getaway driver by night. He has a set of rules he follows when he's on a job:
"If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun... I drive"
In the opening scene we see him on the phone, telling his clients the rules and it's a wonderful set up to the character. It gives us a interesting and contradictory sense of loyalty but also everyman for himself, making the prospect of these jobs very tense. We see Driver get a car from his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) as well as helping his clients getaway from their robbery. This opening robbery is effective in how it creates suspense out of a robbery we don't see happening. We just see Driver waiting, strapping a watch to the wheel, a nice detail, and chewing a tooth pick. The sequence ends with Driver leaving the robbers in a garage while he disappears in to the streets. It's all a very economic and exciting way to establish the character's universe, or at least his nightime universe.
The Taxi Driver comparison is also appropriate, particularly when we see the opening title sequence with Driver travelling the L.A streets. Driver is also like Travis Bickle in that he lives a life of loneliness, without many human connections, aside from Shannon. This changes when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), his neighbour in his apartment. Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in jail and they have a son named Benicio. Driver begins to connect with Irene and Benicio, and the three of them become a family of sorts. There's a nice sequence when Driver takes Irene and Benicio on a drive through the LA river, with the song "A Real Human Being" playing in the background. It's very sweet and captures, simply in visual terms, the blossoming affection between the two, the sense of companionship each desires.
Standard is eventually released from prison and needs Driver's help in paying back someone from prison. This is where the who-know-what hits the fan, if you know what I mean. In it's last half hour or so, Drive becomes a very violent film. The violent, gruesome in itself, is even more jarring because much of the movie had been very reserved and without much violence. I think this was Refn and Amini's intent, create a slow burn of a film, only to shift tone so fast we feel we're going in the wrong direction on the highway. I started to not like the film as much when it became this violent. I've seen plently of violent films but I just can't but feel Drive could have focused more on Driver's intelligence in the last act, showing him play the villains off of one another. While some have criticized Drive for being too slow, I feel the last act of Drive seems to go by too fast. This is where the film needed the most time to breath in its lead up to the final confrontation between Driver and gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks).
The role of Driver requires Gosling to just hold the screen without talking, which is a hard thing for any actor, even a very good one, to do. Gosling is able to pull this feat off, making us interested in who this guy is and what his backstory is. As in many film noirs, the main character is in a way fully formed by the time he enters the film. Driver is the same way, even if he does go through development via his relationship with Irene. I think it's hard for Mulligan to not be sweet, which makes her perfect for Irene. We believe Driver would risk everything to protect her. I like Gosling's take that Driver has seen too many movies, believing he is a character in a movie. This opens the door to intriguing psychological readings of the character. It also makes Driver's actions in the final act even more disturbing. It also suits the style of the film, which is embedded in films of the past. The film can't escape it's own universe and neither can Driver.
I love A.O Scott's appreciation of Albert Brooks' performance in the film:
In his self-authored comic roles, Mr. Brooks often exudes a passive-aggressive hostility, a latent capacity for violence held in check by neurosis and cowardice. He lets you assume the same in “Drive” until the moment he stabs someone in the eye with a fork. It’s a shocking and oddly glorious moment — something a lot of us, without quite knowing it or being able to explain just why, have been waiting 30 years to see.
While Brooks does committ some pretty violent acts late in the film, what makes the performance is the way, as Scott suggests, Brooks uses his ability to hold back, suggesting the ability for brutality just under the surface.
Despite my mixed feelings about the final act, I still think Drive is good film. Its deliberately artful direction, slow pace, and fine performances, suck you in to its visual texture, wanting to explore what's in the frame and in its silences. Like numerous film noirs, It's a film ultimately about enevitability. The hero cannot escape the violence of his existence and he must leave romance in his rear view mirror.