The first time I saw Drive, like many others, I could not pin down its tone. Meditative, mythic, elegiac, violent, imagistic, silent, subtle, sensual, allusive, perhaps existential and even playful. Any sense of classification eluded me. Drive challenged my expectations in most if not all scenes. (I don’t imagine my cousin enjoyed my little asides, “Yes, but why does he know how to drive so well, or I don’t think you realize how few words he has said so far! What is this movie?”) I imagine if I knew more about the history of movies I could easily place Drive in some sort of tradition. In fact, just on a hunch, I imagine many would categorize Drive as a sloppy pastiche of styles, an homage to varying style with a story added as an appendage arm. I find it hard to pay attention to such a critique because just experiencing that movie, without any attempt to place it in context, engendered the same set of reactions just as an encounter with real evocative art.
I tend to assume that of all the mediums, as a culture, we view movies through the least artistic lens - critics, academics, and obsessives excluded. Many factors contribute to this anecdotal hunch, but the simple transience of the movie experience as the next frame comes along against your will, guides our experience of this work as fleeting, as something we consume then leave. With a book we can earmark the page, or underline a paragraph, or re-read a sentence again and again to ourselves or to a friend. We can cut from it and paste, facilitating analysis. We can do this with movies as well, but they require more activity from the viewer to dissect a scene. In the case of something like Drive, you can love the movie, but not take it seriously as art, as something to contend with, to dissect and reassemble, to explain, which testifies to its intelligence, as all intelligent good art should not so easily call attention to itself as such. It turns into the job of the viewer to call attention to the artistic elements and effects.
With Drive, finding a starting point presents a challenge because of its density. Like many other intelligent movies it rarely panders to our desire for neatness, for a clear dividing line between the light of the good and the darkness of the bad. We expect to feel disgust for the father, Standard, but instead he elicits a complex range of emotions. Most of the characters, superbly acted all around, in my opinion, receive a full enough treatment to give them flesh. (I didn’t think Mulligan received enough attention for her devastatingly tender portrayal of a maelstrom inner world covered over by a longing smile. True, her character tends to the stereotypes of women, but she sees right through them at every turn.) But assuming these more foundational elements of art, the movie contains ambitious efforts, efforts to use tone, silence, color, imagery, in a sense, style as a storytelling method as much as dialogue or action, to embrace the ambiguity of life through the intense ambiguity of the characters.
Silence permeates throughout the movie in manifold forms. We know nothing about the Driver; not even his name. Refn drops hints of a background, at best. Instead, almost like a biblical character, the Driver receives his definition from his ambiguity. Not attaching a backstory allows us to focus on his moments, movements, raw emotions, and facial expressions, without a context. His violence doesn’t need to symbolize a regression to a violent past etc, but simply portrays unleashed violence. It takes the character into the realm of archetypes, while staying firmly grounded in a compelling story. Renf creates a character so elusive as to be universal, existential, and mythic. Think of Gosling’s apparent emptiness but as apparent endless depth. Refn’s story at once feels so allusive and and yet so complete and self contained. The protective lover, the harsh, violent exterior covering up a loving, sensitive soul, a troubled background, eruptive violence, but none of these stories can actually cage the slippery Gosling. Time and time again artists remind us that the most lasting characters are those that whose motivations we barely understand.
The setting, in a similar manner, mystifies its sense of time. The roving and plentiful shots of the city at night looks sharp, neat, futuristic. The aesthetic and music is pure 80s, but the situation, the tonal imagery and lighting touches of the 40/50s. The aesthetic, melds the loneliness and color of an Edward Hopper painting to the meticulous coloring of a Wes Anderson movie.
However, Drive adds ominous tones and shocking violence, in the true sense of the word. I don’t think people realize the talent required to create violence in a way that doesn't either evoke camp, torture porn, sentimentality, or cartoonish style, but in a way that feels eerily real - sudden, random, haunting, gratuitous, but still mundane.
The whole movie is lovingly tended to, each detail thought of and through, color coordinated, each light perfected. For example, His room: bare, ascetic in the manner of nomads and saints, contains few objects, but we do see a numerous shots of a book, two in fact, next to his bed. (This creates a playful dramatic irony for the end of the movie. When Bernie tells the Driver he must give up, “Any dreams you have, or plans, or hopes for your future... I think you're going to have to put that on hold. For the rest of your life you're going to be looking over your shoulder.” we laugh a little because he already lives this lifestyle.)To answer the main criticism of the movie i.e. its mimicry of old styles we can explain that the use of some cliched, perhaps, classic techniques represent less a tribute or homage than a perfection of the craft, or at least a new realization of its potential. Think of the first five minutes of UP, which is essentially a montage, but here with a considerably darker content. A montage is a silent short film: shots with only music, exaggerated evocative action, with an emphasis on setting, scenery, sound, and facial expressions.
The elevator scene encapsulates the brilliance of this movie.
This youtube clip doesn’t do the cinematography justice, so try Netflix at 1:11, but you can still see all the important dynamic components in this clip. Gosling, pleads with Irene to protect her in a voice that evokes a child's neediness for a parent, and a more archetypal sense of a man protecting his woman. (Though the one claim undercuts the other. The Driver needs to protect Irene more than she needs his protection. In that vein, the Driver’s love for Irene rarely feels simply sensual, sexual, or even intimate in an adult sense, but always contains something very familial, elemental about it, almost parental.) Here, Refn, as he does throughout the movie, plays with and off our expectations. We expect immediate violence. We see the door close, slowly, ominously with an extended shot of the elevator doors, ominous music begins to play, but instead of the gruesome violence that will inevitably come, Refn transcends the scene into an existential universal realm of a platonic Tenderness.
Time slows down. The lights preternaturally change. Gosling, again in this ambiguity of love/need to protect pushes his arms against Mulligan, as the lights dim. He turns around, gently touches her stomach and they kiss, for the first time on screen in what feels like infinity as the camera slows down, in contrast to sped up 80s music. Because of the altered lighting, the positions of their body, you barely see their actual lips embrace, as silence and intimacy pervades the moment too much to warrant shameless voyeurism. We see their lips when they part, but as they kiss the light in the elevator draws our attention away from the intimacy. The lights return to normal, the driver moves in for what appears as a second kiss, but in a split second, with a clench of a jaw, times returns, and violence shatters the sensuality of silence. Gosling literally stamps out a person's head as Mulligan watches. The scene ends as they stare at each other, dumbstruck, not saying a word since the kiss, but speaking volumes. Gosling, as with much of the violence bears a look of resignation. A distate of the results of his power and violence more than the violence within him.So much for the singular focus on Drive, because I believe its heavy reliance on the sensuality, intimacy, and ambiguity of silence plays a prominent part in numerous other important movies. But let’s save that for the next post.