Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Drive (2011) - Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a brilliant piece of escapist cinema, one loaded with potentially multiple ways in which to interpret it as attested to the range of appreciation it's getting. I've read many reviews by people that love the film and many reviews by people that don't. For those that don't like it, many complaints are that is borrows too heavily from the films of Michael Mann and Jean-Pierre Melville. I grant that on the surface the film seems highly reliant on plot that comes from other films: Melville's, Mann's, Friedkin's etc. But there's so much more than that here. For me, Drive played as a combination of the souped-up masculine aesthetic coupled with overtly pulp melodrama. But he doesn't stop there, as Refn also throws in Christ-figure references and a superhero pastiche all to a magnificent end. Ryan Gosling plays a man who is a hired getaway driver by night, and a stunt driver during the day. He becomes attracted to his apartment neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) who is living alone with her young son. Soon, the bloom of love is thwarted when Irene's husband gets out of prison. The Driver decides to help her husband get out of some debts by being his driver in a heist. The rest of the film is a wild and memorable ride through L.A.

Before I get into my analysis of the film, I must make mention of the wonderful soundtrack, which contains some brilliant composed pieces from Cliff Martinez, all synth and grind, giving the film its background propulsion. There are also several other dream-pop tracks in the film, adding emotion to the proceedings, like "A Real Hero" by College and "Under Your Spell" by Desire. We must also make special mention of Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose, the head gangster of the film. Brooks gives a terrifying performance as this deadly killer and is absolutely brilliant. It's hard to believe it's the same guy who was in Broadcast News (1987). Although Carey Mulligan isn't given a large part in the film, I always enjoy her in any movie she's in.

There are a few clear delineations that make Refn's film his own, rather than purely derivative. One is the fact that he makes the hyper-masculine myth into a more emotional expression. Thus, Refn and Gosling have put the emotion back into neo-noir. I'm calling this emo-noir. One can sense the heart behind Gosling's eyes. He's not a nihilistic, vengeful man. He's a man with deep-set pain beneath the surface, with the super-cool veneer only covering up his yearnings for love and redemption. Yes, Gosling maintains a heightened look of the iconic "man with no name", oozing style. But unlike McQueen, Eastwood, and Delon, he is asked to be a far more sensitive actor. Simmering just beneath the surface is a man with a soft spot for his apartment neighbor and her son. He's quicker to smile than those other "cool" guys too. He's emotive not because of what he says, but for what he does, displaying a caring attitude and gentleness toward this woman and her boy. He's a literal knight in shining armor with his shiny, silver jacket and scorpion symbol on his back, like some courageous superhero. His sense of self-sacrifice, without any real promise of return from anyone is also near Biblical in its references. He could care less about the money at his disposal and is only interested in the safety of those he cares for, willing to risk his life for them.

Another important difference between Melville's or Mann's world, is there is an embracing of the cheese factor. In Jean-Pierre Melville's late career films, the actors are so zen-like that there is not a shred of weakness or insincerity and the same goes for Mann's films. Refn approaches things differently. Drive does not take itself so seriously! In interviews, Refn has, believe it or not, mentioned that he was influenced by Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty Woman (1990), and the gay films of Kenneth Anger. Either he's joking, or he's crazy! I think I believe him because Drive is unselfconciously over-the-top. This is Melvillian neo-noir filtered through melodrama, specifically Sirk's/Fassbinder's emotional and highly stylized cinematic world of buried desires and color cues. Thus Refn creates a pulp-fiction all his own. Somehow the film avoids pretension because there is no sense of realism. This is pure fantasy world, loaded with dream-pop music, an unabashed love story, comic-book violence, and a near homoerotic fixation on masculine style. This is not a reserved film, or one shy of wearing it's heart on it's sleeve. Refn has confidently pushed many styles and influences together to create a wholly beautiful and glorious cinematic experience. 

P.S. As a note on the extreme violence which punctuates the proceedings, especially in the second half, yes the film contains some brutal and gory scenes. But if you've seen the film, you will recall that there are also two key kill scenes that are quite restrained in their approach near the end of the film, where Refn could've been far more exploitative. I'm not trying to make excuses for the violence, it's just that I don't feel this film fits the definition of gratuitous. It feels like there is a point to the violence.


Sam Juliano said...

"There are a few clear delineations that make Refn's film his own, rather than purely derivative. One is the fact that he makes the hyper-masculine myth into a more emotional expression. Thus, Refn and Gosling have put the emotion back into neo-noir. I'm calling this emo-noir. One can sense the heart behind Gosling's eyes. He's not a nihilistic, vengeful man. He's a man with deep-set pain beneath the surface, with the super-cool veneer only covering up his yearnings for love and redemption."

Jon: This is unquestionably one of the best-written pieces that has appeared at FILMS WORTH WATCHING, and the above passage is proof parcel. I have previously read your insights at other blogs including WitD, and was waiting to read your formal take. This is really an exceeding work of scholarship, and a lucid position on why the film has transcended it's more obvious trappings. I've always argued it's a existential tone poem, and have rejected the cries against the violence, (which was highly symbolic) I also agree with your high praise for Gosling and Brooks. I know you see Mann here, but I've noted I saw a fair amount of David Lynch. Anyway, I think this is one of the best films of the year, and applaud you for this masterful piece.

Jon said...

Sam, thank you for the incredibly high praise!!! I definitely agree with you on this being one of the best films of the year and I'm sure I will feel the same when the year is over. As for Mann, I've always found him rather uneven. I only see him in this film as part of the aesthetic, but far less influential on this film in how it delivers the goods. Lynch is an interesting comparison. The only thing that seems missing for me, in terms of this being Lynchian, is the lack of psycho-sexual underpinnings. I always feel like underlying motivations and fears in Lynch refer back to sex in some way. Wonder what your reaction is to that. Either way, I think Drive is an amazing work. Thanks again Sam, your kind comments mean a lot to me my friend.

blahblahblah Toby said...

Jon I have to say I agree with Sam on his appreciation of your article.

I wasn't enamoured of the movie, I was one of the people who felt like "Drive is a 21st Century American Le Samourai" after seeing it. Your review is so well written that it's argued me in to seeing it again.

Emo-noir? Brilliant term.

I felt certain that the people raving on this films quality hadn't seen Melville or a lot of European cinema for example but now I feel like I may have missed something. That or I just wasn't in the mood for it perhaps.

Jon said...


I can't thank you enough for your comments. They are most appreciated. Toby, I myself am a Melville-Freak. I love Melville and have watched a lot of Melville this year. From the get-go, I found Drive very different in the approach. I find many of Melville's films to be emotional, but the emotions come at me from an oblique angle, not straight on. It's the ennui punctuated by violence that provides the emotion. Drive is much more directly emotive for me. Toby, I wouldn't discount your own feelings. My biggest thing though, is that I don't think Refn is being so serious. Melville and Michael Mann can be very dour. I didn't get that impression from Drive. Let me know what you think after you watch it again!

Mette said...

Hey there, just landed on this blog. I really enjoyed reading your review - another one of this film I'm dying to see. It made me even more curious, which is, well, hard to do, probably... Yeah, anyhow, very good review.

Jon said...

Hi Mette! Thank you for stopping by and for your very kind comments. I think you'll really like the film and it will definitely be one of the best films of the year when all is said and done.

Joel Bocko said...

Oh, he's definitely not joking about the Anger connection - I watched Scorpio Rising Friday night, and then Drive last night, and immediately noted that iconic scorpion on the jacket!

Great insights on the film here - although I DO think it is somewhat reserved (emo-noir is still noir), relatively speaking I see what you're saying. For me, it lived up to the hype which isn't always the case.

Jon said...

Hi Joel! Thanks for your comments. Yes the Anger connection was purposeful as you have directly noted. It's really hard to convey through words exactly what goes on in this movie. Like I've said, the plot reads like a thousand other films, but it's the execution that makes it something special. The dichotomy between some sort of passion and sensitivity at play also seems to reflect the violent and loving aspects of the character and it plays out in a tug of war between external flamboyance and internal simmer. I understand what you're saying though.