WARNING: LIGHT SPOILERS
2. DRIVE (2011)
Who knew art house and action could go so well together? Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive combines the best aspects of two polar opposite genres. It has the style and slow-pace of an art house film, and the car chases and violence of a good action movie. Drive can be viewed as homage to ‘80s American action movies with its sexy style. However, Drive has meaning. It isn’t simply a film filled with stylized action sequences. It is a character study of a broken person.
That person is The Driver (Ryan Gosling). He doesn’t have a name and he drives for hire. He also wears a really cool scorpion jacket. I’ll get to that later. Outside of driving, he has no other life. At night, he is a getaway driver for criminals. He is capable of exploiting mysterious roads and manipulating the police. By day, he is a Hollywood stunt driver for action movies. Nothing in his life contradicts each other. He just drives. He’s also the best driver in the entire city and possibly the coolest driver in movie history. “You put this kid behind a wheel, there is nothing he can’t do.” One of the characters says in admiration. The Driver has a strong presence despite being almost silent and showing little to no emotion. We have no idea of how he got to this state or what his intentions are. We almost always have to watch his physical behavior as opposed to listening to what he says.
This would make The Driver seem like the stereotypical action hero but Drive is more elegant than a mindless CGI action movie. Even though the film’s emotions are deeply hidden, its effect is created through the film not trying too hard. The world of the film is not created through the main character himself but rather the situations he is forced into or forced himself into. We as an audience dwell within his shadows. Winding Refn has stated that he likes to force his characters into bad situations and their character is molded from these situations. The Driver falls in love with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) but because of whom he is, can’t have a normal life. Ryan Gosling is amazing as The Driver and this might possibly be his best performance to date. People may feel that his performance has no substance due to being very static but the subtlety in his facial expressions and the way he delivers dialogue shows his dedication to the character.
The rest of the cast is absolutely great but the one supporting performance that stands out comes from Albert Brooks as the film’s villain. He doesn’t play the villain in a cliché way where they are just awful people with no depth. He plays a villain that has the cunning and deceiving aspects of a normal villain but is morally in a dilemma. During certain scenes, you can see on his face that he doesn’t want to commit crimes but instead feels pushed by the world to do so. Brooks definitely deserved a nomination for best supporting actor at the Oscars.
The 1980s electric pop soundtrack by Cliff Martinez is moody and adds another layer of style to the film. The soundtrack helped me discover music that I originally didn’t like (and turned me into more of a hipster). The music, along with the visual language, is often used as a means of explaining the Driver’s emotions due to the Driver’s very minimal dialogue.
Many people who went to see Drive thought they were going to be getting a standard Hollywood action movie and were all greatly disappointed. But the one scene that no one can deny is awesome is the opening scene of the film. The scene involves the Driver listing out his rules to the criminals he is helping. This instantly lets us know that he is a very methodical person and there is no way of bending his rules. Once the criminals steal what they want to steal, the Driver dexterously weaves through the streets of LA and outsmarts the police. The entire scene is shot in low lighting and gives off a neo-noir feeling. LA has never looked this edgy and cool since Michael Mann’s Collateral. The scene has almost no dialogue at all but we still feel very involved. Winding Refn masterfully builds tension in the scene without any booming music or cars blowing up. It is the usage of silence that builds true tension.
After the excellent opening sequence the film starts to become a romance. This is where people started to get disappointed. Everybody just wanted more action scenes yet those are the scenes I have the least to say about. I personally think the scenes between the Driver and Irene are the best parts of the film. Winding Refn is a director who understands that style can also be substance. Instead of using cheesy “I love you” “I love you too” dialogue, he develops the Driver and Irene’s relationship through the elevator rides they have together.
Their first elevator ride is not really shared. Irene walks out of the elevator as the Driver enters. They don’t look at each other and it is just a brief encounter. Their second elevator ride is awkward and they only share a few words and a glance. The second time is after Irene’s car breaks down and the Driver helps drive her and her son home. This time around, the elevator ride is sweeter and you can see a real relationship starting to form. The Driver then takes Irene and her son on an unofficial “date” where the Driver drove them to different places to have fun. This is where their relationship truly solidifies. The third and fatal elevator ride is a turning point in the film and is also the most famous scene from the film. Irene and the Driver enter the elevator but there is someone already in the elevator. The Driver knows that person is a hit man sent to kill him, so the Driver kisses Irene to show his love for her, and proceeds to brutally murder the hit man by crushing his head. Irene backs out of the elevator and finally learns of the Driver’s true nature. The Driver looks back at Irene, as if he was a lost boy, and the elevator door closes on both of them, ending their relationship. The whole sequence is beautiful but heartbreaking.
One small choice I think Winding Refn deserves praise for is his choice of the direction the elevator. I’ll explain. During the first two elevator rides with the Driver and Irene, the elevator is going up, symbolizing their relationship building up. During the fourth and final elevator ride, the elevator is going down, similar to the sudden demise of their relationship.
Remember the scorpion jacket I mentioned earlier? Well, the film cuts to the scorpion jacket right after the final elevator scene. The scorpion is a representation of the Driver’s true nature, that he is a monster trapped inside. In the film, the story of the scorpion and the frog is mentioned. A scorpion promises a frog that it won’t sting the frog as long as the frog carries it over a lake. The frog agrees but midway through the lake, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. The scorpion then apologizes to the frog, saying that it is in his nature to harm others. The Driver doesn’t want to be murderous and violent but he can’t because it is in his nature to kill.
A lot of people have found the graphic violence in the film off-putting but I think the violence is used perfectly. A lot of films seem to use violence just for the sake of violence (the Saw movies) but Drive uses violence as a tool of storytelling. The scenes of graphic violence are meant to portray the nature of the Driver in such a horrifying way that we don’t know whether to hate the Driver or feel sorry for him. The film never glorifies violence as a good thing. In fact, after scenes of violence involving the Driver, he often is left with a look of regret and confusion.
Drive is a very different film and honestly seems more art house than action. I initially had trouble grasping the genius of the film but after 10 viewings (yes, 10), I began to realize how great the film is. Everything seemed like a revelation. I learned that it is possible to convey ideas and thoughts without dialogue and I learned the mystical effect of art house films. Most importantly, I became a braver explorer in the possibilities of film. Nicolas Winding Refn and Drive have become my inspirations for visual language and its usage in film. I have tried to prove to people countless times of the genius of Drive but none of it translates effectively into words. Then I realize that Drive is the kind of film we film fanatics yearn for. A film that uses the medium so well, that it can’t be translated into words.
Please comment in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!