Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Nicholas Winding Refn's latest film, "Drive" puts a modern spin on some once beloved and often overlooked Hollywood genres. While car chases haven't really gone anywhere, we haven't seen a good Driver movie in some time. The Nameless "Driver" (Ryan Gosling) recalls Steve McQueen's Bullitt and Kowalski in "The Vanishing Point" and more recently Stunt Man Mike in Tarantino's Grindhouse send up, "Death Proof" The Driver comes from a long but neglected tradition and he carries it on with his competency and his scorpion racing jacket as an emblem. Driver doesn't have much of a social life (or skills) and divides his time between stunt driving for the movies, working for his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) at his garage, and doing sidejobs as a driver for criminals. He has a strict code for his moonlighting activities and we first meet him conducting a side job. Driver sells the criminals a "five minute window." He'll pull up to whatever place they plan to hold up and give them five minutes. Should anything occur within that five minutes, he's "with them all the way." but before or after they're "on their own." On his first job in the film, we see him easily outwit the police while escorting his customers away from a robbery. He's ready for anything including the police chopper. He doesn't use guns or get involved in any way however, other than driving.

Shannon seems to serve as Driver's employer/manager, and assistant, giving Driver legitimate employment at the garage and setting up stunt driving gigs. He also outfits the cars that Driver needs for his side jobs. Shannon however, has ties to a local crime figures Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) We see him asking Bernie for $400,000.00 which Shannon needs to buy a car to get Driver into professional racing. Bernie is skeptical, reminding Shannon that there are plenty of good race cars and crews already out there. Shannon explains that it isn't the car so much as it is the Driver that matters. After seeing Driver do a test run around a track, they come to an agreement. Bernie stretches out his hand to Driver for a handshake, but Driver says "My hands are a little dirty." Bernie counters "That's Ok. Mine are too."

At the garage Bernie explains to Driver how he and Shannon got acquainted. Apparently Shannon set up cars for B movies that Bernie produced. He also overcharged, which Bernie says he didn't mind. Shannon then tried the same thing on Nino, Bernie's associate, and found that Nino did mind, which cost Shannon a broken hip. Driver doesn't seem moved by the uderlying urgency in this story, When Bernie asks if he's ready to win some races, Driver says "I hope so."

Driver soon meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) Soon after meeting, he happens to be shopping at the same grocery store as they are, and feels obliged to help when he learns their car has broken down. He quickly becomes taken with the two of them, the son more than the mother. His stoicism bends a bit and we see him actually enjoying himself spending time with them. While he has an easy rapport with Benicio, his attraction for Irene takes a little more time, and just as it seems things are going his way, she recalls that her incarcerated husband, Standard, is about to come home. Driver gets back to his work, although his thoughts are now a bit distracted. He has an awkward meeting with Standard (Oscar Isaac) the night of his homecoming party. Benecio has mentioned Driver coming around and "helping out." which Standard clearly has mixed feelings about, obviously suspecting motives other than altruism.

Standard appears sincere in his repentance, grateful for a second chance. However, he is soon badly beaten by thugs in front of Benecio. Driver happens on the scene finding Standard bloodied, and learns that he owes protection money from his prison term, which is getting raised every day. He's being pressured to rob a pawnshop, to even things up, which he doesn't want to do. They have also promised to come after his family next. Driver agrees to help and goes with Standard to meet Cook (James Biberi) the man behind the beatings and threats to Standard's family.  Cook has another person, Blanche (Christina Hendricks) picked out to help with the job. Of course the job goes badly, and Driver ends up with a million dollars in a duffel bag, forced to sort things out. We find he is as good at hurting and killing as he is at driving.

Driver is of course the classic loner, his rituals and spartan needs, giving him a lot in common with Jef Costello in "Le Samourai" and many other hitmen such as George Clooney's character in "The American." For all we know, Driver once was a hitman. Shannon tells us that five years ago, he just appeared out of nowhere and asked for a job. Driver's awkward social skills certainly suggest some isolation from the rest of the world, and he can stomp a man's face under his boot until there's no head left, without missing a beat. But we don't know for sure, and in this movie, he is not a hit man simply the Driver. We learn that his brief interactions with Irene and Benecio meant more to him than we might have imagined. We don't know where Driver came from, or even what he wants. Money seems trivial to him. Where a hitman has a set objective driver does not, at least until Irene and Benecio's safety is in question. He attempts to solve things the easiest way possible, by simply returning the money, but this is of course not possible, and he knows it and arranges accordingly.

Gosling does a great job portraying Driver as a blank slate. He says very few words, letting his expressions do most of the performing and even that is minimal. It's notable when Driver smiles, because it's a virtual torrent of expression for him. Bryan Cranston is terrific as the well meaning but terribly unlucky Shannon, probably the most sympathetic character, as we really get the sense that he's never had a minute that wasn't behind the eight ball. He wants to do right by Driver, but he can't see the big picture. Ron Perlman is perfectly cast as Nino, the strong arming, overcompensating gangster who kicks things into high gear. Albert Brooks is the most surprising casting choice. His Bernie is about as far away from Brooks' comedy persona as you could get. This character is all the more evil for appearing to be a nice and personable guy. The ease with which he can pull out a razor and cut an old friend is nothing short of chilling.

Nicholas Winding Refn borrows from the car and driver movies, and noir movies, mixed with the style of Asian action films, but this always feels like his own film. His awareness of the genres he's working with is obvious, and he clearly loves where his film comes from. The Driver is an impossible character, the guy who comes from nowhere with exactly the right skills to take care of a certain situation. He has no name, no motives, he's just a force waiting to be set loose. He acts like a hitman but he isn't a hit man. He doesn't seem intent on standing outside of humanity, he just doesn't know how to relate to it. Given the chance, he seems overjoyed at the prospect.

He isn't surprised however, when it proves to be transitory. He's the Driver after all. He's all about passing through, the journey not the destination. With his methodical nature and rituals, it's clearly important that he passes through the right way though, as winning and losing seem to mean very little to him. The Driver who begins the film as little more than a personified function learns a little about being a human being (as is heavily reinforced by the soundtrack) on the way. He's not out to live or die, he just drives, but that doesn't keep him from caring enough to get attached, although it isn't in his nature to stop for very long. That doesn't mean he can't look out the window and wonder, what if he could?

Driver clearly has some concerns about his own nature. Watching a television show with Benecio, he points out a shark in a cartoon, asking Benecio if the shark is a good guy. When Benecio tells him no, Driver asks "Are there any good guy sharks?" Benecio patiently tells him "Look at him. Does he look like a good guy to you?" Later, when calling Bernie to inform him that Nino has expired. He asks Bernie, "Do you remember the story about the frog and the scorpion? Nino didn't make it across the river." His strict rules and stoic restraint, point to a man keeping himself on a short leash. his comfortability with extreme violence also suggest something of his past. Yet Driver knows what he is, and he realizes he must use that to save the only people he cares about, Irene and Benecio. This is perfectly illustrated in a scene where Driver and Irene get on an elevator with a hitman coming for one of them. Driver quickly makes the hitman but doesn't let on. He kisses Irene passionately, throwing the hitman off guard, and then takes advantage of the situation by stomping the man to death while Irene watches horrified, unable to process that he's doing something so horrific, so naturally, for her. The kiss is also perhaps Driver's only passionate moment in the whole film. We wonder if perhaps he knew it was the only time he'd get the chance, but still he makes use of it in a practical sense, as that's his nature. We know it's goodbye.

We don't know however, how things will turn out for the Driver. He's the mysterious right man in the right place at the right time, but he comes across as human enough, in a similar way to Charles Bronson's Bishop character in the Mechanic. We know he's the best, but we don't think he's invulnerable. We're not even sure if he wants to live. When he has a job he has to see it concluded. The money is a very small part of that. Perhaps it's enough that for a moment he got to see his own humanity before driving away.


Unknown said...

Brilliant review. I am a huge fan of Bullitt and Vanishing Point and have been wondering about this film. I am not a terribly huge Ryan Gosling fan so I think that's been a part of my reluctance to see this. However, I do admire Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston both.

Driver sounds like a great character, like Jean Reno's The Professional or even Jason Statham's Transporter. There's something about the crew guys, the one's that do the job to the best of their ability and by their own peculiar code.

INDBrent said...

Thanks Melissa! I ad the same reservations, not too enamored with Gosling in general, but he pulled it off well here. Your comparisons are all quite fitting. It's kind of interesting in that the movie made me feel nostalgic for movies like Bullit and Vanishing Point, yet at the same time, it's very modern. Let me know your thoughts if you get to check it out. I suspect you'll enjoy it.

TirzahLaughs said...

I went back and forth on this movie and end the end decided not to watch it.

It reminded me too much of a cross between The Transporter and Death Race.

Well sort of anyway.

I usually enjoy these types of movies but I guess I just wasn't in the mood.



INDBrent said...

Hey Tirzah! It's actually a lot different from those movies, more of an old school feeling, but I know what you mean!

Jeff Gomez said...

Glad you pointed this review out to me, Brent, as I only just saw DRIVE on Blu-Ray. I agree with much of what you've said here. What strikes me most about the film is the interesting use of subjective camera. Refn is somehow able to position the camera around Gosling in a way that sparks a deep intimacy between the viewer and the character, especially when we're in the car with him. (I understand a special process was used to photograph the driving scenes.)

I've never responded to Gosling the way I did here, and Refn ought to be credited with making the actor a movie star of the caliber of McQueen and Eastwood.

The neo-subjective camera here also plays up one of the true recurring themes of the Criminal Movies blog: the existentialist anti-hero. Refn elevates this into modern mythology, celebrating the Driver's isolation, sexual and romantic yearning and animalistic danger as '80s synth pop opera in the greatest, most delirious sense of the term.

Finally worth noting is Newton Thomas Sigel's amazing cinematography. Gorgeous saturated color, a highly filmic approach, in a day and age when the monochromes and digital painting of hyper-post production tend to dominate.

The marketing boys sure messed up on DRIVE, as far more people would love this film than have seen it. So do check it out, ladies and gentlemen, when you get the chance!


INDBrent said...

Thanks for stopping in Jeff! You make some great points, I love the comparison to "80's synth pop opera" it really does use all the best qualities of that idea, and it makes them work well. Couldn't agree more with your praise of the cinematography. It's a beautiful looking and sounding film. Re: the marketing, yeah i'd agree there too. I only checked it out by chance at the theater. It really should've had a major push. AGree with you on Gosling, he's an actor I don't usually find notable but he really made the part his. It's really a film that surprises you, in that it's soaked with history, yet feels amazingly modern as well. Hoping Refn will get a little more support on his next one. He's on a major roll.