Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn)
'Real human being and a real hero.'
Truer words were never spoken. Well, to be more accurate, they are not exactly spoken in Nicolas Winding Refn's most popular film, Drive, but rather sung. Much has already been written about the film under review today, with a host of immensely articulate critics and reviewers espousing very intelligent remarks, many of which far surpass what will be analyzed at this blog. Everyone's tastes are subjective of course, and so is how people read ideas into movies. The notion which has been brought up time and time again in regards to Refn's picture is the power and confidence in its style. Style is, in many ways, a tremendously important part of film, depending on what sort of story one desires to share. What of Drive's style? What does it mean, how does it make its presence known, and in what ways does it impact the story's emotional core?
In Drive, current Hollywood hunk Ryan Gosling plays a man with no name. Not only is he nameless, but in some respects his mannerisms are not dissimilar to those of Clint Eastwood iconic Man with No Name. He speaks little, but when words are uttered from his mouth, those in the vicinity are sure to lend their ears. While his days are spent either at a local auto repair shop in Los Angeles under the employment of old, craggy Shannon (Bryan Cranston) or as a part-time stunt driver for film crews, many of his nights are reserved for an altogether different sort task: getaway driver for thieves. He keeps things as simple as possible, with only a select few rules his clients are obligated to respect, otherwise they are on their own in the midst of their operations. Of course, the few people who are in contact with him know nothing of his nocturnal habit, including the kind woman, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mother awaiting the return of her husband (Oscar Isaac) from prison, who lives in the apartment next to his. As is often the case in films of this ilk, the driver and Irene form a special bond, although one that is never consummated. Things grow increasingly difficult once a longtime associate of Shannon's, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), more mafia than legitimate business, and his overly rambunctious and violent brother (Ron Perlman) take an interest in the protagonist. Soon enough, his life becomes a matter of saving those he loves, whatever the cost.
Nicolas Winding Refn is the sort of director who can ease his way into a script, injecting his own personal artistic vision to a project, and finally release it to the world as a uniquely cinematic experience. In short, he is an auteur in as much as the realities of filmmaking permit. Support for the famous (or infamous, depending on who ones asks) auteur theory should come with certain trepidation. Filmmaking is, when boiled down to its essentials, a collaborative effort. Only in the smallest, most independent of projects is the director the true, sole auteur of his or her film. Nonetheless, there is a case to be made that Refn close pretty darn close to being the auteur of his films, with Drive being a critical example. There is without question a style to Drive that few other supposed mainstream films can match even if they tried their mightiest. Drive was, for the most, sold to audiences and film buffs alike as a predominantly mainstream picture. What unfolded in front of everyone's eyes was anything but. Whether one enjoyed the film or not was a fair debate, but few could argue that Refn had concocted a fun romp for the typical weekend crowd. The film sports an altogether different sort of attitude, one that is conveyed through pretty pictures, finely tuned performances, some action, and a heartfelt soundtrack, perhaps even one of the best soundtracks in recent memory.
Mix all those together and the results are such a complete experience that movie fans, the real, hard core movie fans could do nothing other than drool, mesmerized by the aural and visual beauty of the picture, both aspects creating and solidifying the emotional beats. Ryan Gosling is, for one, excellent in his role as the quiet, unassuming driver who feels compelled to help out Irene, a single mother after all, when he comes to notice her existence. Carey Mulligan plays off of Gosling wonderfully, showing a strength of character that would melt just about any man's heart, as is the case with the driver, a true blue loner if there ever was one. Neither is rich, neither is especially poor. Discounting the driver's unorthodox night shifts, both earn a living ordinarily. The richness is in what they feel for each other. It sounds ridiculous, dorky even, but when acted out by Gosling and Mulligan, and when such a story is moulded by the hands of a director the likes of Refn, everything falls into place like a perfect work painting. The soundtrack, which was briefly referred to earlier, compliments the story of driver and Irene effortlessly. Are the words on the nose? Yes, yes they are, and what's more it is done entirely on purpose. Subtlety has no purpose here. Drive is the film in which the audience really is supposed to feel something. In one of the film's numerous touching scenes, Gosling offers Irene and her son a ride him after their car breaks down. Rather than merely drop them off at the apartment building, he suggests they take a ride in an old water aqueduct. The setting sun shines brightly on the vehicle, through the windshield and onto their faces. No words are spoken, or if they are, none can be heard, as 'Real Hero' takes over the soundtrack. What more could the characters ask for? Perhaps a whole lot more, but better judgements tells them to enjoy the moment, and what a moment it is. For that matter, what more can the audience ask for?
The depiction of the hero is one thing, but how the story handles him the more the pressure rises is another. He is strong but quiet. Helpful yet demands little to nothing in return. Those are admirable qualities and Gosling is great playing the part. That alone might not have served the movie to greatest effect, nor the potentiality of him and Irene giving in to their love unabashedly and, after some considerable trials and errors, living happily every after. The movie could still have been very, very good, but never the movie it ends up being. At this stage, it is revealed that Irene's husband (played by Oscar Isaac, who makes the most of his little screen time by giving a surprisingly touching performance) is returning to the household. The audience's worst fears are thrust to the forefront of their minds. What will this brute of a man be like and how will he loath the fact that the protagonist, our hero, has developed a bond with Irene? It turns out that, although he has admittedly committed some stupid mistakes in the past, the husband is not a bad person. The truth happens to be quite the opposite: he is a perfectly swell being who literally appreciates that the driver helped Irene and their son out while he lived out the last few weeks of his prison sentence. The plot twist is thus given its own twist, fancy that. There is to be no rivalry between the husband and the driver. Rather, when it is learned that the husband is being harassed for money owed due to the protection he benefited from in jail, what else can the protagonist do except be 'a real human being and a real hero?' Script, character, music and direction have completely coalesced into a singular element. Simply put, a great movie. Everybody has their favourite scene, moment or stretch of the story. For me, it is these few scenes in which the driver realizes, despite the husband being a threat to his affections for Irene, the good thing, the right thing, the virtuous thing, is to help the family. Benevolence trumps selfishness.
The pacing of the film is another critical element to the cinematic experience. Too fast and some important story elements feel rushed, which would be disastrous for a film like Drive. Too slow the risk of audience boredom increases. Refn know exactly how to play his cards. Virtually everything is given sufficient time to develop, with scenes breathing all the life they have. The only plot point which is mishandled is Bernie Rose's willingness to hire the hero as a race car driver. That is, in essence, how the two are introduced to one another, that is, when Shannon believes an association between his repair man, formidable behind the wheel, and former business partner, always willing to make an hopeful investment, will assuredly pay off handsome dividends. Unfortunately for Shannon and his main man, those ambitious do not play out as they had hoped, which puts a bitter end to their own friendship. Drive is all about the bitter and the sweet. There is no gain without any pain, and since the characters cannot resist to gain (emotionally speaking), they feel great pain as a consequence.
Lost in the shuffle of fantastic performances, especially with so much praise heaped on Albert Brooks (completely deserved praise, mind you) is Bryan Cranston, a solid actor who can play a great variety of roles. His Shannon is friendly, albeit a friendliness that shows a bit of a rugged edge. There is definitely some wear and tear showing, but he keeps ticking along, calling the shots at the shop and appreciates the driver's presence. There relationship status is, first and foremost, that of employer and employee, but clearly their is a fondness for one another that goes beyond said professional terms. Cranston is very assured in the role, giving a superbly three dimensional performance delivering yet more emotional heft to the film overall.
The style also influences the action, of which there is not an abundant amount. Still, when it explodes, it roars. The adrenaline filled sequence which has sparked the most admiration, and for good reason, is the opening scene, wherein Gosling's driver performs a complete getaway job from start to finish. The camera angles, the contagiously catchy rhythmic music, the play of city street and police helicopter lights with the shadows under which the hero hides his vehicle from view of law enforcers, the sequence is beautifully constructed, serving as a terrific sneak peek of things to come so far as the style is concerned. The editing is not too quick either, providing the viewer with a stunning view of the action, something way, way too many directors are incapable of in the current Hollywood system. It also introduces the hero perfectly, showing off how he himself operates and what character he is.
Is the inclusion of Drive in a Fast Cars, Faster Men marathon a bit of a cheat? Yes, in some respects. There is not much driving, even though when it does happen it looks and sounds amazing (and is pretty fast too). The main character is a driver by profession, just as he is driven to finally do some good for people he loves instead of being merely self-serving. In a nutshell, the hero is both fast and slow. He is fast when behind the wheel, when action is required. On the flip side, he is admirably slow when juggling emotions though, preferring to take a few baby steps instead of rushing in to things. Okay, so the argument for its inclusion is partly understood by reading 'between the lines' as opposed to being clear cut, as will be the case with the remaining films. Its unorthodox qualities, particularly when stacked against the more unquestionably testosterone filled movies to come in the days ahead, make for a great first entry. The driver in Drive is a real human being after all, regardless of whatever incredible action-man abilities the script and director Refn bestow upon him. Sometimes it is nice to know that being the flash there is a a brain, that behind the steadfastness and bravery there is genuine heart.