The common perception of a dramatic story is one that surprises or shocks the audience with unexpected twists. I think a better case can be made for the opposite approach. I don’t refer to mundane, by-the-numbers storytelling. I mean the power of inevitability. The ability of a filmmaker to draw from the audience the recognition of a character’s flaws and strengths and understand where those qualities will take him or her. Will they lead them to be a hero or a tragic figure? Will they rise to the occasion or will they cower in fear and only make things worse? With Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn presents a protagonist who is an enigma–he doesn’t even have a name, people just refer to him as “Kid” or “The Driver”–but from the first moment he appears on screen, it’s clear where his actions will take him. The beauty and simplicity of Drive is in taking the impressive journey to its inevitable conclusion.
Ryan Gosling plays the unnamed protagonist. A mechanic at a garage and part-time stunt driver for the movies, he moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals. They buy five minutes of his time–not one minute more–and he uses his high-speed driving skills and knowledge of Los Angeles streets to all but guarantee a safe escape from the police. Lacking connections with anyone beyond Shannon (Bryan Cranston), his boss at the garage and de facto agent when it comes to stunt driving, he exists purely to come alive only when behind the wheel of a car.
The Driver sees himself as the hero of his own movie. Constantly chewing on a toothpick in an aloof manner, sporting a satin jacket with an embroidered scorpion on the back, and never allowing himself to become personally involved with anyone, he has cast himself as the modern equivalent of the mysterious gunslinger from Sergio Leone’s westerns. All he needs is an antagonist and someone to save. The former comes in the form of Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his business partner, Nino (Ron Perlman). The latter is supplied by his pretty new neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan).
Eager to break out of his low-rent existence, Shannon hatches a plan to buy a stock car and start a racing team with The Driver behind the wheel. Needing money, He turns to Bernie, whom he used to supply with cars and driving stunts for cheap action movies in the ‘80s. Unfortunately, Bernie also has connections to the mob, most notably in Nino, who happens to have an unsavory history with Shannon.
Meanwhile, Standard (Oscar Isaac), Irene’s husband, is released from prison. Seemingly determined to live on the straight and narrow, he is both grateful to and jealous of The Driver for looking after Irene and their son while he was locked up. But Standard’s old criminal partners don’t want to let him leave behind his outlaw life. To force him to take part in a robbery, they beat him senseless before threatening the lives of Irene and their son. When The Driver finds out about this, he agrees to drive the getaway car for the robbery–not to protect Standard, but to save Irene and her son. Of course, it’s no surprise that the robbery goes horribly wrong and The Driver is left to untangle himself from the messy aftermath that threatens to consume not just him, but also Irene, Shannon, Bernie, and Nino.
It would be easy to look at Drive as a companion piece to Michael Mann’s similarly moody crime films. Like Heat and Thief, Drive explores the inability of criminals to maintain a stable personal life while going about their business. But Refn is more interested in examining how a man living and working on the fringes of the movie business might start to buy into the myths being sold by the industry and fashion himself as a hero in his life.
While there is a slight deconstructionist angle to this idea, Refn never really pursues that structure. Instead, he delivers a minimalist character study with punctuations of graphic violence and visual stylization made all the more effective by their selective use. Anyone who goes into Drive expecting a slick action movie will be disappointed. There is some action, but much of it is filmed and cut together in abstract ways designed to highlight the way The Driver views his life. In one striking sequence, he kisses Irene in an elevator as the lighting changes to turn the drab setting into an artificially romantic scene. But as soon as the kiss is over, the lighting returns to normal and The Driver engages in a brutally violent fight with a hit man in the elevator. That Refn devotes more time to The Driver’s fantasy world in this sequence than to the usual beats of the action genre is a credit to his skills as a visual stylist and a director unafraid to defy expectations.
While Refn’s stylish direction and occasional uses of nonlinear storytelling might sound flashy, the film is surprisingly minimalist. From the sparse dialogue to the clean, crisp editing, the film takes the story and the “criminal life” genre down to its most basic elements. There is not a wasted frame of film in this movie. Every shot conveys a small piece of plot or character information. While some bits of the info may require the audience to pay closer attention to pick up everything they need to know, I applaud Refn for refusing to hold the viewer’s hand. Drive may have been marketed as an action film, but it’s not the type of movie that can be passively watched. It demands attention from the audience and rewards that attention with beautiful, surprising moments. Watch not only for the elevator sequence, but also the scenes of The Driver stalking one of the antagonists in a latex mask made for a movie stunt and the perfectly constructed car chase in the aftermath of the botched robbery. All of these sequences are set up by small bits of information that Refn casually drops into the dialogue or visual cues that defy the spoon-feeding mentality of most mainstream films.
Much has been made of Albert Brooks’s stunning performance in the film. I don’t want to repeat too much of what has already been said, but the acclaim is justly deserved. There has always been an element of cranky, old man to Brooks’s comedic persona–even when he was a young man–and he uses that to make Bernie a truly frightening villain. But Brooks’s Bernie is far from being just another heavy. While there are elements of psychopathic behavior to his penchant for extreme violence, those tendencies are tempered by an odd logic. Bernie may or may not enjoy killing people, but he only does so when he’s forced to take action to clean up the messes of others. There’s a pragmatism to Bernie’s actions that make him almost sympathetic. It’s that near-sympathy that makes him even scarier when he starts tying up loose ends in his own bloody way.
While Brooks gives the breakout performance in the film, Cranston, Perlman, and Isaac all deliver with impressive turns, providing humanity–both positive and negative–to their largely underwritten roles. Mulligan, given a similarly underwritten character, is unable to do anything beyond look lovely or sad, depending on what situation fate is dealing her at that moment. But because The Driver views Irene as simply a damsel-in-distress, her performance feels of a piece with the film, even if she is unable to bring much shading to the role.
While I’ve gone out of my way to praise most of the supporting cast, I have consciously avoided mentioning Gosling’s performance. I honestly don’t feel that I fully understand what he was trying to accomplish in the role. I have the suspicion that he calculated his performance to be as inscrutable as his character. The Driver is certainly an unknowable protagonist. There are hints to a darker, more violent criminal past in his knowledge of the way Bernie and Nino will most likely come after him. This possibility seems to be backed up by how skillfully he handles himself in the numerous brutal fights that make up most of the third act. But if he were really such an expert criminal, would he naïvely believe that the thugs menacing Standard and Irene would really leave them alone if he helped them successfully pull off the robbery? For every action or scrap of dialogue that points to one direction for The Driver’s past and motivations, there’s another that points in the opposite direction. Gosling plays the uncertainty of his character either with a knowing half-smirk or a dour seriousness, depending on the tone of the moment. In a way, his performance feels like he’s playing it safe–simply refusing to commit to a character trait beyond cool detachment–but it does take guts for an actor to take on an unknowable protagonist and fight the urge to make him relatable.
Drive may lack for surprises in its story, but it more than makes up for it with Refn’s stylish direction and a revelatory turn by Brooks. It’s a film that sneaks up on you and packs a wallop, even if you see the ending coming from the first scene.
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