I’m a movie lover who has gotten bored with the movies.
I should specify: I’ve become bored with Hollywood movies.
I should specify even further: I’ve gotten bored with Hollywood action movies.
The once-mighty genre (think Raiders of the Lost Ark and Aliens) has become a factory that does nothing but manufacture either the brainless blockbusters of Michael Bay and his knockoffs, or more by-the-numbers vehicles in which Jason Statham spiritually if not literally plays the same impossibly all-around bad ass he first brought to us in 2002’s The Transporter. The last modern action film I remember being emotionally invested in was The Bourne Ultimatum; of this past summer’s highly-anticipated flicks, I found Captain America to be so dull I cannot recall a single line of dialog, and while I was reasonably entertained by Cowboys & Aliens, it played so fast and loose with its internal logic that I would have preferred to watch the cowboys without the aliens. This is the reason why my Netflix queue is almost entirely populated by foreign films and independents.
Against all this, Drive is a breath of fresh air. Or exhaust fumes, if you prefer.
Certainly all of the ingredients are in place for yet another rip-roaring CGI-fueled maelstrom: a taciturn loner who works as a stunt-car driver by day and moonlights as a for-hire criminal getaway driver by night, the (mostly) single mother who lives down the hall, a couple of devious crime bosses, and the reappearance of an ex-con husband that kicks off the inevitable heist gone wrong and thus fuels the rest of the plot, as the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) tries to protect the woman and child he’s grown close to. And that’s almost the movie this was; as of 2008 this film was set to star Hugh Jackman with Neil Marshall (Doomsday, Centurion) attached to direct.
Luckily for us that project never say the light of day, and what we’ve received instead is a film that plays like an existential tone-poem served up as a love-note to the action/crime films of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The bright pink credit sequence and techno soundtrack are an immediate callback to To Live and Die in L.A., and there are so many nods to films like The French Connection, Bullit, and Point Blank that it would take several more viewings for me to be able to compile them all.
There’s a distinct European sensibility to it, as well; with his spartan apartment and taciturn speech patterns, Gosling’s Driver bears more than a passing resemblance to the gunman played by Alain Deleon in Le Samourai. This makes sense considering that Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has worked largely in Europe and is mostly known to American audiences for his 2008 biopic Bronson. What we have then is a blockbuster Hollywood action movie as made by Hollywood outsiders on an indie scale. It’s easy to forget that for all of his heart-throb qualities, Gosling cut his teeth doing indie films and continues to produce his best work there.
Lest you think I’m trying to sell you on some sort of staid, art-house fare though, trust me, this film is very much about action. It’s lean and mean, made from a shooting script that was reportedly less than eighty pages. But it remembers a crucial quality that the Hollywood hit makers have forgotten: action is driven by emotion, most frequently that which can’t be otherwise articulated, and it is on display no where so much as in the Driver. The sexual tension between him and the young mother down the hall (Carey Mulligan, as good here as she was in An Education) is immediately detectable but only commented on once, very late in the game. The characters share two wonderful scenes in elevators, both conducted without dialog; the first establishes their bond, and the second [mild spoiler] consummates it in what might just be the most memorable kiss I’ve ever seen on film.
Gosling does a remarkable job of using body language to suggest the Driver as a man forever compelled forward. He is almost always busy with one task or another, as cool and collected a professional about buying groceries as he is when evading the LAPD. He’s never quite relaxed; even while seated and watching TV with Mulligan’s son, his slightly too-erect posture betrays an internal engine that’s merely idling. The “drive” of the title isn’t merely the character’s role, it’s the principle description of what he is. In a moviegoing environment where BIG has become the adjective du jour regarding emotions and special effects, seeing this kind of subtlety is a drink of cold water after a long slog through the barren, Statham-infested desert.
What struck me about the film is how well the filmmakers were able to take some of the most garish cliches of the genre and spin them into emotionally relevant story points. The ex-con dad isn’t a deadbeat, but a man of regret who made a mistake once and is still paying for it. The two crime bosses (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman) don’t have an army of disposable gunmen to summon at will. And despite her wallflower demeanor, the Mulligan character commits what may be the film’s most surprising (but least bloody) act of violence.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the key supporting performances here. Breaking Bad‘s Brian Cranston plays the Driver’s mechanic/criminal fixer, and with minimal exposition plays a man who is trying to remain optimistic after a lifetime of disappointment while having a little vicarious fun courtesy of his younger colleague; when another character comments, “He’s never had much luck,” you intuitively understand this to be true. Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks has a role that amounts to an extended cameo, but it’s a good one. And Albert Brooks, playing completely against type, is a scene-stealer as a crime boss who really just doesn’t want to deal with all the fuss, and yet is capable of turning ferocious (and back) in a heartbeat. Having mortally wounded an associate, he holds the man’s hand and reassures him that the worst is over.
I’ve praised the acting effusively, and I suppose I should discuss the action as well, this being an action film and all. I’ll be honest here: people who go into the theater expecting to see the kind of movie I mention in the opening will be disappointed. The Driver isn’t a martial arts expert or a crack shot, and the body count is low by modern action film standards. For a film called Drive there are only three car-chase sequences, one at the beginning of each act. There’s no Bourne-style shaky-cam or long fetishistic shots of roaring muscle cars.
But this is where the filmmaker’s emphasis on character over spectacle proves true. The Driver understands that a successful car chase getaway isn’t about being fast and furious, but about knowing the terrain and outsmarting your adversary. When confronting a problem he does so as he handles everything else: with most direct solution possible. It’s nice to see action that stems organically from a character’s personality, when so many action movies treat characters as replaceable pegs to hang the action sequences on. While the action scenes aren’t flashy (and, my research tells me, all done practically, without the aid of CGI), they are memorable. Because it’s here where the film really shows it’s teeth.
While on-screen deaths are infrequent, usually over quick and not particularly gory, they are all unsettling. Every act of violence in the film – car crashes, beatings, gunshots – is up close and personal, with very little screen space between the participants. Drive instinctively understands something that’s been forgotten by the products of the Thrillaminute Factory: killing someone is an extraordinarily intimate act, possibly even more so than sex. After all, a person can fuck you repeatedly, but they can only kill you the once. And it’s going to hurt.
Earlier I referred to the film as existential, and I think that’s appropriate. There are no inherent meanings to any choices made in the movie, only implicit ones; the Cranston character, who lovingly builds stunt cars for movie studios, complains that his creations are valued only for the few moments of footage they provide (subtly indicting Hollywood’s treatment of violence as he does so). To kill someone in defense of another means your victim’s life has less value to you than the life you are protecting. I cannot think of a more subjective meaning, and the film acknowledges this.
Drive is a film concerned with morality that refuses to moralize, leaving the audience with no easy answers about right and wrong, or good and evil. Instead, it’s an action film that allows the characters to use action to demonstrate the subjectively personal meanings they’ve created for themselves, but doesn’t rationalize them. That alone makes it worth seeing.