Drive (Winding Refn, 2011)

Critics are praising a fresh, stylish take on an old story—and they should be. It’s a very well-made film.

A criminal, dodging the law and living off risky business, encounters a damsel in distress and her adorable sidekick. Using his carefully controlled catalog of facial expressions, he connects with her quickly. And, spending time with her, he finds himself motivated to—gasp!—improve himself. While this cocky crook still has to keep an eye out for lawmen, and his ill-advised criminal partnerships put dangerous brutes in hot pursuit, he lets his heart and his conscience lead him to help this beautiful woman escape the trap that’s closing around her. Get ready for thrilling high-speed chases, during which the hero’s transportation almost steals the show.

I’m talking—of course—about Walt Disney’s animated musical Tangled, now available on DVD.

But I’ve just seen director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new slow-burn thriller—Drive—and the very same description applies quite well. So, since you’ve probably already seen Tangled, let’s forget all about it and talk about Drive.

A Hyperviolent Fairy Tale

Drive is a fairy tale—but it’s an extremely R-rated fairy tale dressed up as a crime thriller. It belongs to the genre I like to call the “Bad Guy Who’s the Best At What He Does Has Second Thoughts When He Meets a Girl But Finds That Crime is Hard to Quit” genre.

And within that genre, it achieves a remarkable distinction. It’s reminding critics of all kinds of movies—I’ll mention a few that came to my mind—and yet it also startled me with that rare and thrilling sense that I was seeing something very, very new.

The less I tell you about the story, the better. This is one of those you want to discover as it goes.

Suffice it to say that Gosling plays a “Man with No Name”—the credits call him “Driver”—who works three jobs. By day, Driver works in a garage with his boss, a brusque, amoral fellow named Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who brags about “exploiting” his talented protégé. In his spare time, Driver works as a Hollywood stunt driver.

And by night, well… that’s where things get interesting. By night, Driver sells his expert abilities behind the wheel to criminals who need a driver. Shannon supplies the cars. (To help him avoid the cops, he puts Driver behind the wheel of California’s most popular car—a Chevy Impala. “No one will be looking at you.”)

But when Driver meets his neighbors—a young woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son—he is quickly drawn to her. And he can’t help but enjoy the attention of the boy, who clearly needs a father figure. But before long, Driver realizes that Irene is living in a very dangerous situation, and he can’t resist the desire to help her.

Los Angeles is a big place, but the driver quickly discovers that the world is dangerously small. The relationship that ignites during a pleasant joyride along the long line of concrete called the Los Angeles River leads to far more dangerous stuff—like playing the getaway driver in a high-speed chase with a secretive beauty (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) in the back seat.

A Film in Rare Company

What does it remind me of?

Would you believe Lost in Translation? Its fusion of dreamlike imagery, clever casting, and music-video sensibilities reminds me of Sofia Coppola’s style. What Marie Antoinette was for historical costume dramas, Drive is for crime thrillers. If Sofia were a dude making genre action movies to impress Quentin Tarantino, they would be a lot like this.

Also: Sodbergh’s Out of Sight. It’s the same kind of slow-burn crime thriller, although its sense of humor is bone dry (and brilliant). It gives us a bad guy (not George Clooney, but Ryan Gosling) who is drawn to a beautiful woman (not Jennifer Lopez, but Carey Mulligan). And the woman is drawn to the bad guy’s confidence, charm, and dangerous impulses even as she begins to make him second-guess his criminal impulses.

Both of those films charge forward with incredible confidence, propelled by excellent, moody soundtracks. Out of Sight runs on electronica, jazz, and funk, while Drive hums with techno-pop and an amusingly obvious theme song called “A Real Hero.” And the sound design contributes to a dreamy ambience. One of the first things you’ll hear in the movie is the pulse of sub-woofer reverberation, as though a macho car is cruising past the Cineplex.

Oh, another thing. Both Out of Sight and Drive feature Albert Brooks playing against type as, well… let’s just say he’s not one of the “good guys.”

It reminds me of Michael Mann’s Heat in that Ryan Gosling plays a man of very few words who seems to be making quick decisions in heavy traffic even when he’s sitting in a restaurant or riding in an elevator with a beautiful woman. And the film’s more fantastical elements—like the main character’s hilarious combination of jobs, or his comic book hero speed and strength—seem almost plausible because Refn delivers a completely convincing Los Angeles environment, avoiding familiar backdrops and living on the back streets.

I also thought of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The film’s genre elements are given steroidal boosts, to the point that they’re simultaneously cartoonish and compelling. The pop songs in the soundtrack draw all kinds of attention to themselves, celebrating an era of television and moviemaking as much as they celebrate a genre. The villains are outlandish and hilarious. (Ron Perlman plays a grouchy hulk of a gangster in a performance as over-the-top and memorable as his turn in Hellboy.

And, as in Pulp Fiction, when the violence happens, it happens with such suddenness and intensity that you’re shocked and horrified. In the words of President Obama—“Let me be clear.” This film’s violence is very, very graphic. This movie is not for kids… and it’s probably not for most adults. You’re especially shocked to find that a character who has charmed you is capable of such immediate, spectacular brutality.

Best of all—like Tarantino, Refn knows that the small moments matter as much as the big ones, and the silences are as powerful as the noise. Perhaps the best thing I can say about this movie is that, for all of its explosive energy, the three moments that stick with me the most involve:

1) a stare-down game with a child,

2) a quiet moment in which the hero looks very carefully at the other people in an elevator (this elevator scene is even more memorable than Die Hard’s), and

3) a close-up of the hero’s eyes.

A Real Hero?

After the film, I found myself puzzled by the appeal of the deranged criminal that this film calls “a Real Hero.” Why do we root for Driver so quickly? He’s clearly a deluded individual, one who sees himself as a kind of fantasy—a tough guy in a stylish jacket who is bound to pay the price for his crimes sooner or later.

Part of it can be blamed on Ryan Gosling. He’s brilliant here, playing a character who, like The Iron Giant, rarely speaks, plays well with children, is good at fixing things up, and, when he’s provoked, suddenly turns into an explosive killing machine. He plays Driver with a detached, deadpan demeanor as if he’s still uncertain whether he really wants to be in this movie or not. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Gosling might break the fourth wall at any moment to say “Can you believe this movie?” And yet, he also has moments of endearing warmth and moments of swift and brutal action that recall the supreme confidence of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. His restraint throughout the film gives his few moments of explosive emotion a searing power.

The character’s appeal also has to do with his particular code (or, as another critic more accurately put it, his “system”). Driver does an honorable job by day, invests in feeding our fantasies on the side, and then indulges in a fantasy himself—one that’s sure to come crashing down on him in time.

Call it “the five-second rule.” You know that rule, right? It’s the rule that says food is still good if it’s only been on the floor for five seconds. We know we’re fooling ourselves when we say that, and yet, if we’ve just dropped an Oreo cookie, many of us will probably snatch it up, brush it off, and eat it anyway. Driver has a “five minute rule.” He gets a thrill from stepping into criminal behavior and out of it. But his five-minute rule – “I’m giving you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours, no matter what.” – it’s just enough flirtation with danger to make his life exciting, but probably not so much it will cause real consequences. Or so he thinks.

How many of us have versions of that in our experience? Just a few minutes of your favorite vice… really, how much harm can it do? As The Big Chill’s Michael said, “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”

Thus, you could say that Drive is a film about the little lies we tell ourselves in order to spice up our lives. You could say it’s about the consequences of compromises and crimes, in that Driver’s criminal activities are going to make it all but impossible to live “happily ever after.”

And yet, the film clearly glamorizes fighting crime with similarly criminal activity. You could even call it an allegory for America — fighting the world’s bad guys with violent “above the law” tactics and very dirty hands, while convincing us that this is all righteous and necessary.

But good grief — defending this movie on grounds of its “moral message” is a very desperate maneuver. The movie isn’t much interested in cultivating conscience in its audience. I think, rather, that it assumes our conscience is alive. The film’s humor depends on the audience’s awareness of Driver’s ethical contradictions and conundrums.

No, the movie’s raison d’être is to celebrate a genre, impressively improving certain distinguishing characteristics—editing, acting, action, soundtrack, cinematography — even as it exaggerates other aspects to expose the lunacy of the whole affair. (In that sense, it’s a cousin of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and Deathproof.)

How can you not laugh when scenes of sensationally violent machismo are accompanied by a sing-along lyrics that say, “He’s a real hero”?

In fact, the film’s best joke is that it contains a description of itself — spoken by the villain to describe his own work. You can’t get more self-aware than that.

It’s an exercise in superlative craftsmanship, and an amusing, even whimsical take on Beauty and the Beast. And for me, that’s more than enough. I went in wondering why I was being duped into seeing another movie about a crook and a damsel in distress, and I walked out buzzing, eager to see it again as soon as possible.

(One lingering complaint: For a movie about a stunt driver — a movie called Drive — this movie needed more driving. Alas, it seems to forget its own title during the last 30 minutes.)

  • Lauren Wilford

    Clever opening, there ;). I’m very intrigued. 

  • Scott Haug

    One quibble. The ‘5 minute rule’ wasn’t how long he’d drive, but how long he’d wait. They had 5 minutes to get in the car, or else he’d be gone. Hence, at one point, he tells one crook, as he starts his watch, “You have 5 minutes”, and the guy replies “I’ll see you in 4”.

    • Jeffrey

      Thanks! My memory stumbled on that detail. Thanks for helping my memory back up.

  • Scott Haug

    I was impressed with how much patience was expected from the audience. The pacing was deliciously slow in places, and that’s a lot of trust to put into modern day film audiences. A movie I was reminded of in this regard was ‘The American’, especially the scene where Driver is working on a piece of nondescript machinery in his room. However, where the ‘The American’ didn’t really reward that patience, ‘Drive’ was satisfying throughout.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    “If Sofia Coppola were a dude making genre action movies to impress Quentin Tarantino instead of Somewhere to talk about herself…” Heh. Turns out she didn’t need to make genre action movies in order to impress Tarantino. He was so impressed by Somewhere itself that the jury he headed in Venice gave the film its top prize.

  • Neil Pu

    I think Ryan Gosling’s character in this film is clearly delusional. While the film acknowledges that the Driver is crazy and homicidal, it also sympathizes with him. If this is a movie purely about sympathy towards the Driver, then this movie is a fairy tale and he is the hero. If this movie is about the Driver being delusional, then it is about him believing in fairy tales therefore the film is merely a representation of his state of mind. I think the movie is both. I still have to think about the implications if the movie is as I described it, but that’s all I have so far.

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm. I think there’s a valid alternate take on Drive from a different vantage point. Standing above and outside the film, I can see a conclusion that Driver is delusional, living in a fantasy world, joyfully tasting just enough of the criminal life. But for me, when I enter into the world of the film and look at Driver with compassion, when I realize that I don’t know what pain in life has hardened and imprisoned him, and when I withhold judgment and observe, I see some different things.

    George Balanchine once said, “I don’t want people who want to dance. I want people who have to dance.” Driver is more than good, he’s gifted, like nothing Shannon has ever seen, and that seems to make him “have to drive.” There’s no evidence in his eyes of thrill-seeking before, during, or after a getaway drive. Taxi-for-crooks isn’t the best choice, but then a broken past can, understandably but not excusedly, distort one’s list of valid options. We do all have our rationalizations, and his code is his moral boundary. He is reserved and tentative with Irene and Benicio, as if a dream-of-freedom-long-withheld had been awakened. His facial expressions and few words with her seem part of this tentativeness, not carefully controlled manipulation. He doesn’t pursue her physically — Irene is the first mover (her hand on his in the car) and, aside from the elevator kiss, there is no indication that anything went further than that. This is honorable on Driver’s part, and unusually so. He offers to help Standard knowing it means giving up any hope of Irene. Later, when he suggests that she might take the money and run, he is still tentative, adding himself on only as an afterthought. She rejects the idea, and he feels his dream of freedom slipping away.

    And the violence? Consider this: The three most graphic scenes (motel room, restaurant, elevator), explore different drivers behind extreme violence. In the motel, Driver is defensive. He shouldn’t have got himself in where he could get double-crossed, but he does no more than he needs to to get out — he’s playing by the rules of the game. In the restaurant, Bernie is offensive, in essence setting the rules of the game. In the elevator, the juxtaposition of Driver’s unnecessary brutality with the most physically intimate moment he has with Irene seems to speak of rage at those causing his near-freedom to evaporate. The onscreen graphicness, whether one thinks it gratuitous or not, viscerally differentiates these drivers.

    Driver is longing to be freed from a prison, not living a delusional fantasy. In him, I see a broken human, doing his best to live honorably, disabled by the ways that life has fractured his vision. I think there is some real hero in that.

  • The Rosebuds

    I guess I’ll offer a counter-point to the generally favorable reviews both here and nationwide.  I admit to liking the film during the stylistic first half of the movie.  I loved how the film quickly established the driver’s expertise as a driver, loved the establishment of the romance, I even loved how the romance was “pursued.”

    When the violence kicked in, however, I found the film almost unwatchable.  It was one of the most unpleasant movie experiences I’ve had.  And please note, I’m not a prude when it comes to film violence.  Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol 1 & 2, The Wild Bunch, you name…I can handle movie violence.  But there was something about the violence I found very unsettling.  It seemed reprehensible and extremely vicious, almost nauseating.

    Then, as I turned away from watching the violence, I began thinking about the elements of the film that didn’t work.

    1) As Jeffrey said at the end of his review, for a movie called Drive, it needed more driving.  In fact, the Driver’s backstory, which would have provided the audience some context for the violence he was capable of, was totally lacking.  We saw very little of his driving skills and MUCH more of his killing skills.  The movie probably should’ve been called “Blood Letting,” not “Drive.”

    2) Where were the cops during this movie?  Other than the opening (very well done) driving scene, the cops were pretty much non-existent.  Did no one report the carnage in the motel room?  Can’t the police track down a guy with blood splatters all over his white jacket?

    3) The thought entered my mind, “What are the filmmakers saying in this film?  What’s supposed to be my take-away?”  I couldn’t come up with something in the midst of the ultra-graphic killings.

    I’d have to caution many people to NOT go in expecting a pleasant, nor a rewarding, experience.

  • Randy Heffner

    An observation in response to the comments about Drive, because of the title, needing more automobile driving: This assumes that the title is (only) a reference to automobile driving. At, across both verb and noun forms, “drive” has 18 separate definitions. As one possibility, if the film is exploring what drives us, and perhaps specifically what drives us to extreme violence, the violence, though no less difficult to watch, becomes at least more understandable as an artistic choice, as does any deficiency in quantity of automobile driving.

    Well, okay, one more thing: The main poster image for the film (Gosling in the dirty white shirt), in Gosling’s facial expression, also has more connection with violence than driving, which serves as an additional interpretive clue as to what the film is doing.

    • The Rosebuds

      I get your point, Randy, but I’d argue that most movie-goers go into a movie called Drive – a movie that’s ad/poster campaign clearly associates the word with CAR driving than something else – expect more CAR driving than what’s contained in this movie.  Let’s take that movie poster, for instance.  If the poster image has Gosling, dressed as he is in the dirty white shirt, at the steering wheel golf cart and holding a driver instead of at the wheel of a car, one might expect the movie to contain more than two GOLF scenes.  I certainly think it’s fair of viewers to criticize a movie for the lack of certain elements when those elements are clearly suggested by its ad campaign.

      And if you allow me to take this alternative “GOLF” Drive a little further, I think it’s reasonable to expect viewers who came in expecting to see GOLF as a major part of the story to be totally repulsed by the unexpected, extreme graphic nature of the violence in it.

      I’ll give you another movie that repulsed me like Drive did:  “Nurse Betty.”  I remember leaving that movie sickened much like I was sickened after leaving Drive, and even though I’d seen movies more violent than it.  I think the reason I absolutely hated that movie was because it was advertised as a “look-how-silly-Renee-Zellweger-is, she-thinks-she’s-in-a-soap-opera” comedy, but contained some scenes of intense, graphic violence.

      Bottom-line:  I went into Drive expecting some great car chases, some good dialog and plot, and while some of that was there, I also had an exploding head, a shower curtain rod impalement, and a barbarically crushed skull (to mention just three) shoved in my face.  I didn’t appreciate it.

      • Randy Heffner

        I can certainly understand that, Rosebuds, yeah. Drive’s extreme violence is repulsive, and more so than many are ready for. Also to your point, that is how most evaluate any film: Based on what they expected and wanted it to be. I guess I come at a film from a more open perspective, characterized by something Robert Henri said (early 1900s painter): “In looking at the work of another, try to enter into his vision.” With Drive, like you, I was repulsed by the extreme violence, and though I’m not a violent person and I fancy I would never act as Driver did in the elevator, I’m certainly like that to some degree in my ability to over react. So, I came away hoping, among other things, that I might more quickly notice — and be repulsed by — when I’m letting justifiable anger carry me too far. I can’t say definitively that that was part of Refn’s vision, but nonetheless I can see it clearly in the film itself.

        BTW, I rewatched the trailer, and much of the elevator scene is there — perhaps nearly as much as a trailer could have (e.g., it has the stomping-in-anger, but not that quick flash of the result).

  • Arti

    It reminds me of Bresson’s “Pickpocket”, and Flannery O’Connor, and her notion of the “intrusion of grace” within all the violence.

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