Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Drive (2011) A Film by Nicholas Winding Refn
It's pretty clear at this point where Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn's strengths and weaknesses lie: his eye for cinematic space and feel for primal (mostly aggressive) emotions has a way of obliterating nearly all nuance from character, theme, and story. Drive, his latest Ryan Gosling vehicle and Hollywood breakthrough, may be the film where that dichotomy is most evident. Like last year's The American (one wonders what might have caused this sudden urge to ape the contemplative action movies of old), Drive inserts a European flair for atmosphere and emotional restraint into a conventionally American conception of genre cinema. But Refn, unlike Corbjin, falls into thinking that stylistic affectations are enough to elevate trite material into something mythic and monumental, and ultimately Drive settles into a half-baked fever dream of flimsy homage - Mann, Wong Kar-Wai, Melville, and McQueen all join the party - to support a desperately Screenwriting 101 narrative of crime, film noir, and romance cliches. Regurgitated before a general American public, Drive's aesthetic signposts may look and feel novel (and I suppose they are when placed aside the majority of contemporary action movies), but they are for the most part merely rehashes of techniques and moods applied more convincingly and fittingly to the sources they sprang from.
The crux around which the film's ambitions can be measured is a montage sequence towards the end of the first act conveying a nameless Driver's (Gosling) infatuation with his doe-eyed neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan). Driver lusts after her apparent innocence, and it's made blindingly clear through Refn's many symmetrical compositions, where any human imbalance could throw off the pictorial and implied thematic unity, that he is the surrogate father of Irene's son, indeed even an ideal missing link to their family trio. (Considering Irene's jailed and "imperfect" husband is Hispanic, Refn seems unaware of the illicit racism inherent in the suggested betterment of this familial entity, but that's another line of thought entirely.) For Gosling, as with every existential anti-hero in the history of American cinema, getting the girl appears to be an instantaneous escape from the imprisoning drudgery of his repetitive role in life, which, in this case, consists of acting as the driver in big-budget movie stunts and manning the occasional getaway car for heists overseen by Driver's exploitative agent Shannon (Bryan Cranston). The montage in question covers Gosling's first leisurely endeavor with Irene and her son, when, given the task of driving her back to her apartment from the auto shop, he takes a diversion to a secret nature spot. Intending to crystallize Driver's single guiding desire and thus establish the backbone of the film's dramatic conflict, Refn instead reduces the scene to a brief, kitschy interlude where the gauzy blend of 80's synth pop and sunny visuals pillages the moment of any human tenderness that might have organically existed had Refn not indulged in the aesthetics of a television commercial. Disastrously, the entire justification for Refn's supposed character study feels tacked-on and superficial from the get-go.
Once Irene's husband does enter the narrative, of course he's tied up in some seedy shit left over from his pre-prison days. Taking it as his perverse strategy for acquiring Irene, Driver offers to assist the husband by providing his escape car in a heist that will help shake off his debts. In doing so, the tension between Driver's existentialist trap and his transcendent desires is erased, since pleasing Irene means doing what he already does. Henceforth, Drive spirals into an ultraviolent revenge yarn wherein Driver's life-or-death stakes rise, making his stoic put-on less and less convincing. Gosling, of course, has a role here that oozes cool, that is so indebted to historically badass representations of introspective action heroes (equal parts Delon, McQueen, and De Niro) that it demands a lot. And while Gosling is able to bring a formidable, enigmatic presence to the first half of the film, those same qualities of wordlessness and spare physicality are exposed later on as the self-conscious poses of a man disturbingly astray from functional morality. The issue is not that Gosling doesn't feel realistic, it's that he just doesn't feel like a human whatsoever and more like a pastiche of various tough-guy, anti-hero tropes (his resignation to a stuntman mask at the finale of the film suggests he has fully submerged his identity). Ironically, the same reasons Clooney was lambasted for The American are the grounds on which critics find ample praise here for Gosling, but the difference is that Clooney functions well as an interior actor, finding subtle ways to externalize his inner turmoil. Gosling, on the other hand, can only stare.
Refn, who has displayed a continued lack of imagination in his dealings with supporting role in the past, struggles to counteract Gosling's inertia with any vibrant, emotive characterizations for him to play off. The offhand glorification of Driver allows little screen time for characters like Irene, Shannon, and the movie producer-cum-mob boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), to whom Driver becomes dangerously entangled following the film's central set piece. Mulligan, her suspected talents impoverished yet again by lack of screen time or one-dimensional writing (see also An Education), becomes little more than an abstract still frame of a Romantic Interest with no agency in the progression of the narrative. Sure, she's a symbol, a cipher more than anything meant to challenge Gosling's passivity, but her obliviousness makes her a moot point, not a tantalizing enigma. Brooks, meanwhile, injects artificial menace into the latter half of the film more by humorlessly cutting throats and slicing wrists than by actually telegraphing any convincing sense of doom in his facial expressions and body movements. His character, like Gosling, is a rudimentary idea of a genre archetype (the no-nonsense, antisocial mobster), and therefore is devoid of multiple layers.
All of this being said, Drive is a sufficiently assured film in several departments aside from narrative and character. I can practically hear the proverbial chorus of supporters stomping their foot down to the chant: "it's a film about atmosphere, not story!" Indeed, on that level Drive is a luscious ode to the nighttime gridlock of LA as a place of pulsating beauty, and one needn't look further than the film's first and finest scene, a calmly paced, compositionally tight getaway sequence following a too-close-for-comfort heist. It is here, in Driver's special habitat, that Refn really locks in to his character, paying close attention to the squeeze of his leather gloves against the clutch and the rapidly shifting eyes from road to rear-view mirror as he waits for the robbers and navigates the dark labyrinth of streets. Refn will frequently fill three-quarters of the frame with blackness and amorphous clusters of streetlights towards which his characters will apprehensively peer, evoking the claustrophobia that accumulates when there are so few options on where to hide a hulking piece of metal. The film almost never missteps in its calculated approach to shooting action in a way that respects silence and space while also ensuring that bursts of violence and noise are especially earth-shaking.
Trouble is, it's already well known that Refn succeeds on this level. He's been an atmospherically adept filmmaker from the start, but he's yet to marry his uncompromising craft with material that it can do justice to. And beyond that, he's yet to find aesthetic heft from within. As much as Refn's hypnotic treatment of driving is well-intentioned and well-delivered, it's pulled from Mann (Collateral in particular), Two-Lane Blacktop, and Walter Hill's The Driver. As pained and passionate as Gosling and Mulligan contrive to look at each other, their gazes - and the souped-up visual treatment of those gazes - is excavated from late Wong Kar-Wai, especially when Refn resorts to operatic slow motion for good measure. And as much as Drive pushes to become the next seminal anti-hero saga, it's constantly drowned underneath the weight of its towering predecessors (Taxi Driver, The Conversation, To Live and Die In LA, etc.) and relegated to the level of pedestrian.