The day has finally come (or re-emerged after a long dormant absence, but more on that later). One of cinema’s most esoteric, obtuse sounding pairings has finally been realized. Drive, the new film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, combines two very dissimilar cinematic worlds: the art film and the action film. It’s all kinetic action and flair, but particularly in the later half, it adopts a distinctly 70’s angular, stylized European moody crime film vibe more interested in abstract bodies in motion than bloodletting and tension. It’s about as strange a pairing as can be found in the modern cinematic landscape. Yet it’s wholly wonderful for the same reason, a peek into the past where genre fare did not imply smug grandiosity. And it could only have been made by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Driver (Ryan Gosling) drives. By day, when not working as a mechanic, he drives for films. But by night, he drives for anyone, no questions asked, as long as they pay. Naturally, this means he’s involved with criminals, but, just as he does with anything, he distances himself to keep from getting caught. He has no real friends to speak of, and he doesn’t have much of a way with words either. But one day he helps his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), and a bond develops between the two, matched only by an equally strong bond between Driver and Irene’s son Benicio. And, as is the case with any movie like this, their interaction changes (at least one of) their lives forever.
Drive is an action movie that isn’t particularly concerned with action. There’s plenty in the way of shoot-outs and car chases, but Drive’s mythic characters and the blank spaces around them trump the need for bloodshed and mayhem. A central relationship between Driver and Irene centers the film. It’s not quite romantic, but there are hints that in another, less perpetually lonely, world the two could be more than friends. Because Driver rarely speaks, there’s a remarkable sense of ambiguity in their feelings for each other, and ultimately, a commentary on the never-ending miscommunication that bonds and distances broken people. They clearly care for each other, but there’s always a distance between them even as their personal lives become intertwined. It’s part of Driver’s character; he’s like a hero out of the Old West, a loner brought in to save the day whose life is defined purely by his skill-set, which doesn’t include being human. He can’t, at the end of the day, involve himself as it would destroy the fabric of the frail, desperately composed world he’s structured for himself.
And the action does kick in. Like its titular character, once Drive gets going, it doesn’t stop. The film’s second half is filled with suspenseful chases, confrontations, and shoot-outs, all of which are riveting. There are two car chases in Drive, both of which are amongst the finest ever captured on screen. More impressively, they’re polar opposites. The car chase that opens the film manages to rattle the brain without ever going above the legal limit; it’s all quiet suspense, slow-building dread, and artful composition. The chase that comes out of nowhere to start the film’s non-stop second half is pedal-to-the-metal. Short, sweet, and to the point, it’s filmed for maximum impact to fry your nerves in an instant. Likewise, while the opening is filmed in cool blues, taking place at night to highlight the subdued, collected nature of Driver at this point, the second chase is sun-scorched and blinding, mirroring his own erratic, impassioned driving at this point as a consequence of his shift from detached observer to frayed participant.
One thing linking every scene in the movie, whether a car chase or a quiet, character-driven conversation, is Refn’s gorgeous cinematography. He’s displayed an accomplished use of color and shot composition in the past, and that holds true in Drive as well – he displays no interest in putting his ethereal coldness back in its locker, and cinematography and framing serve less as window-dressing than a commentary on the nature of “mythic” characters as types who know nothing of humanity. In many ways, this is one of the most visually stimulating and sublimely beautiful films I’ve seen in years (and it has a gritty, super-cool Bullitt style vibe too? I think I’m in heaven). From the intricately constructed opening, to the staccato bursts of over-the-top violence, to the moody, evocative slow-motion chill cosmology, Refn solidifies himself as a master of using style to enhance substance.
Because the film is very obviously, and very openly, a pastiche of ’70s crime films from America and the ’60s French works which pre-dated them, especially the works of Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai), the film deals with its characters in kind: not as people, per-se, but as objects on the screen dancing out motions to get through the day. Melville dealt out cold, merciless thrills like no director before or since. He was very much interested in boiling action/crime films down to their bare essentials through finding the action in his use of long takes and quick cuts rather than in the literal diagetic action of the film. He was a filmmaker who found substance in style, and who elevated the genre to a sort of intellectual artistry and artificial composition that influenced many American directors in the ’70s. For him, human insides were defined by the physical and the outside, and he observed them like he would pawns on a chessboard. Obviously, he influenced Winding Refn too. While the film boasts an emotional center-piece about a man coming to terms with a reality he long-distanced himself from, the film itself is unmistakably icy and interested in that man not as human but as space moving around emptier space. A profound chill runs through the film as things we’d expect to pulse with passion are cold and meticulous.
Thus, if the film is one with its characters, it unmistakably defines these characters through pure, unfettered style. Winding Refn makes no bones about his artistry – literally shoving it in our face and elevating the main character to a “type” who finds a home on the screen because it is distant and because it can capture him as an object rather than as a human-being, exactly how Driver wants to be seen. The film thus is something of a meta-commentary on much of the artifice inherent in those ’70s films that focused on style over emotional humanity and how this sort of style would work in other genres. It is ruthlessly non-human, even down to the mocking use of overly-romantic “theme” music for the later portions of the film in an ironic commentary on Driver’s forced lack of emotion and how it mirrors, ironically, the forced emotions of such gushing romance. In turn, the later portions of the film emerge as a sort of attempt to marry this archly detached ’70s crime film vibe with an old-school melodrama, one all about no emotion and the other all about emotion at the expense of nuance.
The result is uneasy, but that’s the point – Refn is mixing the warm and the cold and seeing what sort of brittle product on the verge of breaking into little pieces comes out. The film’s emotions thus move toward caustic artifice late in the film, overblown like a detached satire of films which bend over backwards to find emotion through melodrama. Any “emotion” just makes the film more downright dreary in its exploration of craftsman-thriller tropes, as if a melodrama was being read by an arch-stylist who wanted nothing to do with the characters and instead found form and function in the physical spaces around the characters. But then, “as if” isn’t appropriate; Refn is an arch stylist, and he is more interested in the form and function of physical space than in the emotions of his characters. His film almost plays like two film genres smashed together to see what happens, and it’s a wholly fascinating genre deconstruction of both.
I’m tempted to say that I wouldn’t want every action movie to be like Drive. Some part of me thinks I want something more exuberant and joyous from time to time. Maybe that’s true, but Drive is about as strong an argument against that fact as I can imagine. It’s the type of confident, skillful, inventive filmmaking absent from cinema these-days, a blend of art and pure craft that is less interested in telling a story than poking around various film genres, seeing what works, and leaving in what doesn’t. If the film isn’t perfect, it maybe couldn’t be. Experiments work that way, but I’ll watch Refn tinker till the end of time rather than any more “perfect” biopic or period-piece any day. Drive is imperfect, but it’s all the more fascinating for its imperfections.