Originally posted on Sept. 22, 2011
DRIVE (USA, 2011)
The gist: Nicolas Winding Refn's distinctive genre filmmaking style is further enlivened by Ryan Gosling's fittingly laconic performance as a self-mythologizing loner in the glittering city.
While it may not be fair to call it a pastiche, Drive borrows heavily from the stylistic and narrative elements of its L.A.-specific gritty urban drama predecessors. It has contour-emphasizing lighting, a primary color palette, bleak street shots in contrast with aerial shots of the glittering city at night, a lone tough guy falling for a sweet girl, going on an ultra-violent killing spree, taking out gangsters to save her life, with 1980s-inspired, sad, sentimental songs and a low synth score pulsating in the background. It's full of images and sounds that scream macho coolness, kitsch and the kind of romanticism a masculine hero’s dramatic arc is expected to generate.
Despite whatever negative connotations that the words like pastiche and kitsch may carry, however, Drive is one of those films that click and stick in one’s mind. That’s mainly because it creates the feeling of being connected with our anonymous protagonist called Driver, by means of not just point-of-view shots but slow motion and muted tones. While it’s conventional to alternate subjective and objective shots to put the audience in a character’s shoes, it seems as if, in Drive, the camera often lingers longer than necessary or moves more slowly than necessary, when Driver shares romantic moments with the girl Irene or sets out to get perilous jobs done. Admittedly, overused slow motion tends to portray brutal throat-stabbing, brain-blowing, and skull-crushing as cartoonish and that significant kissing in an elevator as overly romanticized.
Immediately after my first viewing of the film, I was confused if I should embrace this extravagance or just laugh it off. In fact, I heard several times gasps and giggles at the absurdity of extreme violence and romanticism. Then, a few questions struck me: what if Refn, the director, deliberately went overboard (aside from the possibility that he wanted to flaunt his virtuosity as a technician)? What if he wanted to make this look like a film-within-a film playing in Driver’s head? Suppose even those scenes where Driver is not present or which we do not observe through his eyes, are all a part of his fictionalized reality. It might be a bit of a stretch, but maybe that could explain the much blurred line between subjectivity and objectivity, and the excessive use of slowmo action and hovering camerawork.
This approach helps better (or with a bit more coherence, at least) digest the scene where Driver and Irene stare at each other for extraordinarily long; the elevator scene where after kissing Irene in slow motion under suddenly softened dim lighting, Driver crushes an enemy’s skull like a melon, an out-of-control exhibition of brutality that surprises even him, let alone Irene standing agape now outside the elevator; and other callous killings by not only Driver but the villainous gangsters, which exude camp. Suppose, again, all of these constitute the myth that he desires to create. In the act of mythologizing himself, Driver pictures himself as some unnamed hero, who goes to immense lengths to save the girl.
This narrative of his own has a beginning, which is a self-sustaining sequence in itself and introduces Driver by showing what he does, a conflict, a climax and a resolution, as well as decently choreographed car chases in between. It's also enveloped in a shroud of existentialism: the protagonist is an anonymous stunt driver, a part of whose job is to wear a mask, without any background stories the others seem to have. Reduced to an archetype, Ryan Gosling’s character seems to allow him little versatility, but the actor effortlessly switches between ruthless and romantic, and between unnerving and softened. Carey Mulligan brings her trademark girl-next-doorness and subtlety into play, delicately conveying the comfort that Driver seeks. And Drive also owes its charm greatly to the strong supporting performances by Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Oscar Issac. Drive seems a stylistic hodgepodge, but it’s the kind of film that appeals to all your senses and lingers with echoes of “Nightcall,” “Under Your Spell,” “Oh My Love,” or “A Real Hero.”