Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
By Roderick Heath
The Driver, like many of the western and noir characters he counts amongst his cinematic ancestry, seems a product of evolution customised for surviving in a hostile milieu. But whether he’s anything more than that is difficult to discern. Cruising the nocturnal labyrinth of L.A.’s streets, he handles his car as an extension of his body, not caring to what use he puts it as long as something, anything, is testing his skill and reflexes and giving him a reason to move. Starting out as solitary as the hero of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) in a similarly nondescript, low-rent room, the Driver speeds two armed robbers away from a crime scene, eluding police cars and helicopters with preternatural cool and matchless ability, gliding through the inhuman geometries and eternally provisional architecture of L.A.’s backstreets and the sulphurous-hued lanes of freeways. He gives his clients a few minutes of his life, making their risks his, their lives his own, and then walks away as if it is nothing to do with him. An incidental conversation buried in the movie explicates the nature of the Driver’s existence: he’s a shark, moving to live, relying not on private motives or emotional impulses to guide him through any given day, for he has none that can be seen, but on any command, job, or cause he’s handed. Playing the Driver, Ryan Gosling, one of contemporary movie acting’s most reticent and subtle portrayers of emotional expression, reduces himself for most of the first half of the film to a bare slate of a man whom many take for decent and personable chiefly because he maintains an equitably blank façade.
The Driver’s illegal escapades come as interludes in his career as a motor mechanic and part-time stunt driver for movie productions. All of these jobs are arranged by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who confesses cheerfully to having been “exploiting” his quiet, pliable employee since he first walked in asking for a job five years earlier. Driver seems to regard Shannon as a fatherly figure. But Shannon has links to criminal entrepreneurs Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), and he borrows money from the pair to buy a stock car that Driver will race. At the same time, Driver is drawn into the lives of Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos) when they move into an apartment down the hall from his. As his path repeatedly crosses with theirs, Driver steps into the role of paternal pal for the boy and beneficent helpmate for Irene, even as he learns she’s still married to Benicio’s father Standard (Oscar Isaac), who’s serving a prison term. When Standard gets unexpectedly released, the Driver continues to stick close to the family in uneasy amity until, not surprisingly, Standard proves to have trailed a threat with him from prison, owing money to heavies who helped protect him in prison: Standard is beaten up by thugs, and Benicio is presented with a bullet. Driver confronts the battered father and finds he’s being pressured into taking part in a pawn shop robbery, so Driver decides to volunteer his services as the getaway driver for the job. He meets with Cook (James Biberi), the nominal planner of the heist, and Blanche (Christina Hendricks), who will accompany Standard on the actual robbery. But when the job goes down, Standard is shot dead, Blanche comes out with a sack of a million dollars, and Driver has to do what he does best in eluding a pursuing black car.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s first Hollywood film comes hard on the heels of his near-brilliant, semi-abstract portrait of harsh violence, existential panic, and spiritual yearning, Valhalla Rising (2009). The Driver could be a distant descendent of Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye from that previous film as an equally taciturn, self-sufficient package of potent violence and existential alienation, barely kept tethered to the earth by the finite threads of emotional gratitude. Drive is nominally a more functional kind of thriller. Not at all surprisingly, many commentaries on Drive have discussed its internalisation of the aesthetic rules and themes of a distinctive strand of American cinema from the ’70s and early ‘80s—early Michael Mann, Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, John Frankenheimer, William Friedkin, and, importantly though less obviously, John Boorman and Monte Hellman. But such comparisons come at the cost of obscuring the degree to which Drive is an aesthetic and thematic unit with Refn’s other works in its denser webs of references and underpinnings, and the way Refn steadily but subtly subverts aspects of such models. The way Refn uses songs over scenes occasionally takes on the flavour of satire of such models in a fashion faintly reminiscent of the more overt ridicule of song-storytelling in so many ’80s films in Team America: World Police (2004); lyrics about being “a real human being” and “a real hero” are heard throughout, even as nothing so clear-cut emerges from the actual movie, because by the end, the notion that Driver is a “real hero” is rendered moot.
Most neo-noir antiheroes were assailed loners and misfits who often tended to be decent even if forced to live outside of society, angry, or resentful, or cheated by the world about them. Whilst the Driver retains aspects of such figures, he’s more like Hellman’s antiheroes in Two-Lane Blacktop, practically a philosophical distillation, a floating islet of consciousness detached from humanity, even, perhaps, a merciless avenging spirit, like Walker in Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). There are hints as to Driver’s background—his very specific rage at people who leave a young boy without a father—but Refn refuses to psychologise Driver, rendering him stoic and enigmatic, reduced to a purified, elemental study in the duality of man. Hints of Driver’s depth of emotional longing and attachment to the few things that matter to him are dropped in his real affection for Shannon and for the family for which he appoints himself guardian angel, and yet his past and internal life remain basic mysteries.
In spite of the pop songs used like a Greek chorus, the aptly Tangerine Dream-esque music score by Cliff Martinez, and squiggly hot pink Miami Vice-esque titles, Drive is, on closer examination, no mere retro-cool tribute. Drive isn’t really an action movie, avoiding a big climax or major action scene, almost to the point of feeling anticlimactic and too self-conscious about its elevated ambitions. Vicious and thrilling moments certainly arrive, yet Refn, whilst certainly fascinated by and talented at describing carnage, is always trying to capture its awfulness, the jarring horror of lives ending in the blink of an eye. He deliberately upsets the usual moral impetus of such films by making the Driver’s acts of retaliation as ugly and repulsive as those of the villains. At one point, Driver deliberately depersonalises himself, donning a latex mask he wears on movie shoots for a very real piece of deadly stunt driving. Drive is closer in spirit to serious noir and the adult Westerns of the ’50s, with their emphasis on moral meanings and social contexts for such violence rather than the gratification of lesser genre films. Refn also evokes the Euro-American mythologising of Sergio Leone: a painting reminiscent of the one that was Morton’s icon of aspiration in Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) hangs in the hallway outside Irene’s and Driver’s rooms. Gosling’s pared-back, impassive performance of an almost supernatural cool concealing brilliance and ferocity evokes Charles Bronson’s in the Leone film too (and, of course, Refn had made Bronson  based on the life of a famous criminal whose personality became blurred with that of the star).
Whilst Refn certainly seems to have his mind on deeper things than the usual car chase and gunfight movie, he composes Drive with a classical control that’s as daunting as it is clean and direct, avoiding the CGI augmentation and trickery so often apparent in the Fast and the Furious films, rather evoking The French Connection’s chase in the rhythmic dialogue of bumper-cam rushing motion and the speeding driver’s face. Driver tunes in on the police band so he knows what the cops are saying to each other, but when on the home stretch, he changes over to a commentary on a football game, the play calls seeming to blend aptly with the Driver’s peregrinations, end of game and end of chase dovetailing purposefully as he takes the car into the car-park of the stadium to be immediately lost amongst the outpouring spectators. Drive is a director’s movie in almost the purist sense, for it’s the way Refn renders his scenes, full of elastic time, fluxes of mood and meaning, that renders the relatively familiar material compelling, strange, and enriched. Reminiscent of the unique scene in Valhalla Rising depicting men going mad in the face of an alien newness, drowned in droning music, Refn here presents a similarly striking moment in which Driver peers through the window of Nino’s pizzeria, masked and transformed into a murderous homunculus, whilst his unsuspecting target laughs and cajoles inside with friends and flunkies, all with an operatic level of music and distorted reality.
Refn tries to dispense with dialogue as much as possible as he depicts the Driver in the course of events, flowing through the placid homeyness of domesticity with Irene and Benecio to bloodcurdling eruptions of violence and chaos in his hitherto controlled, withdrawn life. The similarity to Michael Mann’s early films is clearest here, as Refn uses music and scenes filled with silent meditations on behaviour to communicate a sense of things occurring on subliminal levels for characters who are reticent by nature and necessity. Like Mann and some of his American and European brethren, Refn seems to be trying to rebuild pulp melodrama into something like preverbal myth. Many shots aim for and achieve something of the desolate urban solitude of Edward Hopper’s paintings. The angelic aura that hovers around Irene, which Refn pushes in the light that shines about her in many shots, is disturbed when Standard returns. A dark, slightly cowered, certainly guilty inflection to his attempts to reclaim a place in his family blends with a quality of devilish charm and pulverised pathos, reminiscing happily about his and Irene’s first meeting whilst feeling the tug of responsibilities and ugly truths he can never erase.
The opening scene of Driver ferrying the two burglars from the scene of their heist to their drop-off point, where he leaves them cold without any further interest or concern even as they’ll probably be picked up by the cops who have pursued them, strikes notes that resonate as the story unfolds. Driver’s sense of professional involvement has specific parameters, promising and delivering dedication and protection only within those parameters. When one of his former clients comes up to him in a diner and starts yapping away about his subsequent life, Driver interrupts him and threatens physical violence if he doesn’t go away. On the job, however, he tries to shepherd the burglars away from cop cars and helicopters with diligence and intelligence, even though the unexplained lag of one of them delays them and nearly wrecks the getaway. Similarly, he takes on the responsibility of protecting Irene and her family, but this time, without limits: he sticks with the job until the end, remorseless and uncaring about the lives he has to take or even his own in the process. When the pawnshop heist goes kaput, with Standard dead, Driver flees, taking Blanche and the sack of mysterious cash with him and eluding the black car in a blur of stunning motion that exemplifies his pure survival instinct. In the subsequent motel room confrontation between him and Blanche, he extracts the truth of the situation from her with a powerful threat before Cook and goons arrive not to aid but to shut down the anomalous duo.
Refn reveals a ruthlessly black sense of humour in casting iconic Mad Men sexpot Hendricks as the trashy femme fatale forced on Driver, only to have her head blown off by a shotgun blast after a few minutes, drawing attention more to the way her life ends in an astounding moment than to whatever good and bad things she’s done in her life; only Driver’s instinctual speed, not mediated by any moral or sporting considerations, saves his life. Driver’s survival capacity proves to be, in fact, the undoing of him and those close to him: the final point of the heist was to see all the operatives involved in it killed and the money circled back to Nino, the mastermind looking to chop off a potential Mafia rival at the ankles by seizing his capital and then burying the links. By surviving and, worse, finding his way to Nino via Cook, whom he wallops with a hammer in the midst of an almost blasé collective of topless dancers, Driver brings down heat not only on himself but on Shannon and Irene. The most frightening member of the Nino-Barney duo is, in fact, the more avuncular-seeming Bernie, who takes on cleaning up Nino’s problems with brutal directness, releasing his frustration on Cook by jamming a fork in his eye and beating him to death, and coolly, unexpectedly slicing a gigantic gash in Shannon’s arm during a similarly reassuring conversation. His glum solitude in his fancy apartment, with his collection of knives kept in a pristine collection, suggests the kind of man Driver himself could be if he gave in to the same impulses.
Driver certainly seems to trail the old “man with a violent past” aspect of many a reformed gunslinger given up to almost zenlike self-abnegation in his current life. His subsequent campaign of preemptive rampaging reminds me of how an acquaintance once described himself as the sort of pacifist who goes apeshit when his family are threatened. Here’s the real keynote of Drive, as Refn studies the strange nexus of violence and love, and how whilst the ability to wield the former has always been seen as a necessity to ensure the security of the latter, it can so easily turn corrosive and self-propagating. This comes to a head in the film’s most aesthetically and technically bravura core, as Nino and Bernie send a hood to the apartment building. Driver, recognising the man as a danger, turns around, kisses Irene in moment of lingering, slow-motion beatification, then turns back and smashes the hitman into a bloodied pulp, stamping on his skull with the lunatic fury of a caveman. Irene backs out of the elevator with an utterly horrified gaze, and Driver’s look back at her is charged with fury and necessity, yet also chagrined like a young boy caught doing something shameful. Refn’s ambivalence, then, is more than skin deep, and the dynamic he creates here in the dizzying swing between romantic tenderness and primal, gut-churning violence demands soul-searching on the audience’s part as to how one should finally view the Driver and his place in the scheme of things.
The funny thing is that after all is said and done, Drive is, like Valhalla Rising, a curiously spiritual, almost otherworldly film, replete with moments of woozy magic-realist beauty, as when Driver, tracking down Cook, stalks down a long, dark corridor lined with tinsel and a white-garbed stripper idly poking away at her mobile phone, or, in counterpoint, a moment as patently eerie and stygian as Driver’s revenge killing of Nino, stalking down onto a beach wearing that latex mask and drowning him in the surf. Whilst Driver’s final confrontation with Bernie is a little flat and strangely weightless, the very end, when Driver leaves behind everything and heads off into the night, bleeding and possibly dying, inevitably invokes Shane (1953): Driver, like his earlier brethren, has to leave behind both domesticity and ill-gotten power, and yet, perhaps, Driver has finally found his own sense of direction.