So I saw drive this weekend.
I went with my guy, which I think makes for a better movie experience in this case because this is a celebration of some great ‘blokey’ flicks and it’s kinda nice to do the viewing with a man you have that soft spot for. After all, Nicholas Winding Refn claims the film is a tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky, so that should give you a bit of an idea of what’s going on here.
The basic premise is a familiar one. Ryan Gosling is a ‘Man with no Name.’ He works as a bit of an odd jobs man – stunt driving, repairing rare vehicles, steering getaway cars for armed heists at night. Even though he is a loner, he falls for his sweet (and horrifyingly innocent looking) neighbour Irene, played with dignity by Carey Mulligan. Irene is a young mother who has found herself an unsuspecting part of a dangerous underworld once her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac – looking disturbingly like both a Mexican and an Iraqi) is released from prison. Standard is a pretty hopeless thief and ‘Driver’ decides to help him with one final heist in order to help Irene and her son get their life with Standard together. When the heist goes wrong, and Irene and her son become a target, ‘Driver’ turns to his own dark side, properly kept under control in the first part of the film, in order to clean up the mess.
Apparently every male who sees this film developes a huge man-crush on Ryan Gosling and I completely understand why. He’s the classic dark, complicated, moody hero every man secretly thinks he is (if only people could read him properly) and this is no accident. The entire film is an exercise in male ego masturbation, and considering it is a tribute to films like Bullitt and The Day of the Locust, we are to understand that no apology will be made for this. This is a tribute, 80′s themed film when women were adornments and the music uninspired and this film lives up to both those appalling 80′s attributes.
There is a deep style here.
Despite the appalling plot holes, despite the absolute waste of Carey Mulligan, and despite the repetitious highly predictable narrative, this is a lush, well crafted, beautiful film. Some things are done so well in this film that it overrides the negatives I’ve described above. The problems, however, do prevent the film from being a true great – both my boyfriend and I gave it a mutual three out of five (we have very high standards). But we both genuinely and truthfully enjoyed the film experience.
So – where’s the charm?
First of all, the real stars of this film are cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel, and Nicholas Winding Refin, the director. The detail in the set design, camera work, choice of locations and muted colour experience are what gives this film a stunning noir/ 80′s feel. Hand-held camera work inside the vehicle, digital film, the lack of CGI, stunt drivers (how hard must it be to get work as a stunt driver in the days of CGI) and the choice of drab rarely viewed parts of L.A. make this film a visual feast for the senses. Jean-Pierre Melville’s influence is all over the cinematography, giving it the Euro arty noir rather than the American noir feel. The film is crafted, not ‘made’ and this makes all the difference.
Then there is the exciting creative aspects behind the spirit of the film. The film wears this coat of many colours, combining comic gore, film noir, b-grade aesthetics, grindhouse with a little Euro-trash art house style thrown in for good measure. I’ve seen reviews that compare this with David Lynch’s Mullholand Drive and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction but really – must everything with a little blood made in America be compared with Lynch and Tarantino? The climactic ending scene was very Reservoir Dogs and there are a few Lynchian comic horror moments, but I think Refin has done something fresh here. It’s the stylised noir feel combined with the Euro art house that adds an element that separates this for me. This film doesn’t contain Tarantino’s jagged edge or Lynches hysterical fiction. Because of its slow meditative nature, it’s also more than a tribute film. Despite the hot pink opening credits tribute to Risky Business and the Clint Eastwood like monosyllabic communication, the film exhibits a depth that has been incorporated through style.
Perhaps the answer to this lies in Refn’s statement that the film is inspired b y Grimm’s fairy tales. He wanted the film to be like a fairytale, archetypical characters and a completely pared down storytelling. Key moments in the film are carried out within on or next to cars (scene is important in fairy tales), morality is not necessarily rewarded and villains are brutally murdered. Typical of a fairy tale, this story has a moral code, but offers a fantastical way for rule of karma to be upheld.
Ryan Gosling is great as the Driver. I read that he and Refin worked harder to pare down the language, preferring to use feelings and body language to communicate. except for a weird kind of fist clinching reminiscent of the hulk turning green that warns us Driver is about to explode, this sparse language and penetrating deep look is worked flawlessly by Gosling. His silver padded 80′s bomber jacket sports a large gold scorpion on the back, and anyone familiar with the attributes of this astrological sign will know Goslings character is the consummate, perfect Scorpio. Reference is also made in the film to the mythology of the scorpion and the frog. Of course, a fast wiki told me Gosling is a Scorpio himself, so i guess it wasn’t too hard for him to feel his way into exactly what this role required. During the making of Drive he would drive Refin around at nights looking at L.A. and finding places to shoot, or he spent time meticulously taking apart and putting back together the 1973 Chevrolet Malibu. His costuming is perfect, making him look like he fell out of Kenneth Angers Scorpio Rising without the retro biker feel.
A little something should be said about the violence. I recognised the genesis of the infamous ‘elevator’ scene, and sure enough a little research told me Gaspar Noe had been called on to explain THAT special effect from Irreversible (you know the one I mean – not the rape scene). The two scenes are almost identical. I’ve read in many places that the violence is comical, and while I know what that means, I have to confess neither I, my partner nor anyone else in our busy cinema laughed at any of the violent moments. I’ve kept spoilers out of this section of the review, but if you haven’t seen the film and you have a squeamish stomach, please know that this is a very graphically violent film.
A little needs to be said for the supporting cast. Albert Brooks is so good as the Jewish mobster that I kept thinking I had the wrong guy. It’s a masterful piece of casting. Brooks took the role in order to do something entirely different and as often happens when traditional ‘nice guys’ take on gangster roles (think Darryl Hannah in Kill Bill or John Jarrett in Wolf Creek) the effect is startling. I love it when cinema gets brave with casting like that, including the actors history and persona in the character. This is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of that technique. ( I also loved this technique in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence with the two opposing pop stars are used to represent different cultures at war). Oscar Isaac does a lot with the hopeless Standard, making us feel for this man who is so bad at life, and Ron Pearlman is a sad and twisted Nino, desperate to be respected by the Italian gangsters. Bryan Cranston provides appropriate pathos as ‘Drivers’ father figure. Christina Hendricks plays a small role as Blanche, adding her beauty and competence to one of the films best handful of scenes. She is excellent as a 1980′s larger than life gangsters moll and fills the screen with her charisma in a film where women are underplayed.
For me the treatment of women, ‘typical’ in the 80′s but poorly translated into a world far more sophisticated about sexual politics, is a shame in this film – it feels as though only half the story is being told, and the enormous plot holes (Bernie performing a kill and missing THE package he is after that is dropped at his feet) prevent this very clever and sophisticated film from being a true great timeless experience. I found the so-called existentialism to be rather silly, and nothing on Jadorowski, so that would have been better left alone I think. Oh – I didn’t love the soundtrack either. I liked all the Cliff Martinez pieces, but the closing credits with A Real Hero felt so corny to me it detracted from the film experience. I should add, my boyfriend – much more of an music adept than I – really loved the soundtrack. There’s 80′s chic and there’s 80′s chic. I guess we can all take what we can take.
Ok – so after all that, I highly recommend this film experience. If you’re interested in going, try to make it on the big screen. It is such a visual treat, you will have an enlightened experience with a film that shows deep respect to an intelligent film audience.