Some of us critics got a little googly eyed over director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive when it hit U.S. theaters early last fall. (It had already been a sensation at Cannes earlier in the year.) Yes, it has Refn’s confident balance of visual flair and economy and an instantly iconic tough-guy performance from Ryan Gosling. But more importantly it was (along with Soderbergh’s Contagion) one of the first fall films out of the gate to offer grown-up theater goers relief from the annual Summer Stupids. Starved for something other than giant robots, sharks, and superheroes, in September we all fell a little in love with Drive—and gushed a lot over it.
On its release, I immediately pegged Drive to my mental 2011 Faves List. But re-watching the crime noir a couple times over the winter as I prepared for end-of-year awards voting and Best Of lists, each repeat viewing further reinforced a paradox: The more I watched the film, the more convinced I became that it’s all style as substance, and the less I felt it had to say beyond its neon-slick, ultra-violent attitude. And yet my appreciation of the film grew for exactly that same reason. Maybe Drive—now available on home video—is nothing more than a fresh, stylish genre riff, but it’s a terrific one, and I admire it even more for being just that.
The L.A.-set film (based on a 2005 crime novel by James Sallis) centers on a nameless, taciturn stunt driver and professional getaway driver for hire, referred to in the novel and the film’s credits only as “Driver” and played with merciless stoicism by Gosling. Like a knight-errant (or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, name-checked in the book), Driver is the best at what he does because it’s all he does. He lives sparsely, focused solely on his work, both legal and illegal.
But like those same knights, Driver gets into trouble—and is both strengthened and weakened—when he lets himself start to care; in this case for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan, as usual perpetually on the quivering verge of a sob) and her son (Kaden Leos). When Irene’s essentially decent husband Standard (actor to watch Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison but sucked back into having to rob a pawn shop to pay his debts, Driver steps up to help out.
And of course everything goes to bloody hell from there. Helping pave the way downward are Bryan Cranston as a seedy pal, Christina Hendricks as a gun moll, Ron Perlman as a mob boss, and a fantastically against-type Albert Brooks as a sadistic sociopath in mensch’s clothing.
I interviewed Refn last fall, and we both went through the usual 20-minute publicity tour dance over the usual topics. The conversation was serviceably interesting and thoughtful, but not terribly enlightening on any deeper level—in a way, somewhat like Drive itself. And yet, in hindsight that brief encounter offered me a useful insight into Drive and Refn’s approach to art and filmmaking.
At the start of our sit down, the Danish director was trying to show me a Drive trailer video on his smart phone, but couldn’t get streaming reception in the high-rise Chicago hotel. In frustration he barked at the local PR agency rep to “Fix it now!” What struck me was the sense that this minor petulant outburst itself felt like a pose—like Refn, while genuinely annoyed at his phone, was playing at the bratty, demanding Euro-divo director stereotype people expect to see. It was all part of the show.
That seems to be the meta-key to Drive. When you watch the film and find yourself chuckling at its ‘80s pink-neon trim, Driver’s satin scorpion jacket, or Cliff Martinez’ archly New Romantic synth score (featuring the bit of Europop cheese “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth), you have to step back and admit that Refn knows these stylistic flourishes are going to come off daringly silly. In part he’s trying to catch you with a backhand—just when you think Drive is drifting toward the corny or kitschy, Refn slaps you back to attention with brutal violence. But the film’s overt reliance on its stylistic flourishes is also intended as a wink: “I know this is all cool surfaces,” Refn is saying, “And that’s both the joke and the point.”
With Drive, Refn is out to cheekily subvert action-film and action-hero tropes. In fact he succeeds so well at stripping away the usual cliché approaches to car chases, shoot outs, and catch-phrase-spouting tough guys that many mainstream theater-goers balked loudly last fall. They complained that Drive—with its long stretches of existential quiet, minimalist car chases and shoot outs, and almost sub-verbal protagonist—was not the Fast Five thrill fest the ads promised. (It’s also sports a romantic subplot in which the couple barely touch, let alone kiss or profess their love.)
I’m sure the Refn reveled in that sort of audience frustration, but the director is more than just puckishly iconoclastic—he’s plenty enthralled with the iconic as well. In Drive, Refn revels in the idea of the L.A. noir crime story, and because the director himself doesn’t drive, he’s able to fetishize (his term, used repeatedly in our interview) California car culture and the seedy crime underworld Driver cruises through. Drive is also Refn’s first American film, and again there’s the sense the European director is wallowing in the Platonic Ideal (and stylistic excesses) of a “Hollywood” movie.
Along those lines, Driver’s day-time employment as a stunt driver gives the film one of its visual gags: In order to case a mob joint, Driver swipes and wears a latex stunt mask intended to look like perhaps Bruce Willis or a bald John Travolta a la From Paris with Love. But like 1980’s The Stunt Man with Peter O’Toole and Steve Railsback, the nature of the stunt profession—built equally around adrenaline fixes and illusionary deception—underscores Drive’s themes of artifice and macho posturing.
And at its heart Drive sticks to Refn’s favorite cinematic subject, essayed in the Danish Pusher trilogy, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising: The Solitary Man of Violence, forced outside the boundaries of polite society by a brutal nature he only controls with adherence to strict, precise codes and rules.
Sallis’s Driver in the novel is a less-than-chatty loner, but he still carries the rough, roguish swagger of the classic hard-boiled hero. But for their film version, Refn, Gosling, and screenwriter Hossein Amini (known for the period literary adaptations Jude, The Wings of the Dove, and The Four Feathers) strip Driver down even further. Gosling can’t quite turn off his natural magnetism, but when you look past the actor’s matinee charm and deadpan sense of humor, the character on screen is so deeply damaged and emotionally muted as to be less than human.
When sorting out my list of top films of 2011, I tried to steer toward those that had something to say, or more specifically that spoke to me personally. By that measure, my appreciation for—nay, infatuation with–Drive felt suspect. Despite Refn’s stated fascination with men of violence undergoing transformation as they merge into society, the film is primarily a sharp crime lark, albeit an incredibly well-constructed and enthralling one. But sometimes a genre film transcends a lack of thematic depth by making itself a celebration of its genre. Sometimes style is welded to tightly to story that even the archest irony is transmuted into an odd, cinematic sincerity. And yeah, sometimes cool is just plain cool.
Drive stayed on the list.