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.


Jon said...


I haven't seen this yet but had high hopes for it and saw some others liked it and some didn't, mainly for reasons you mentioned. Is Mann really homage worthy though? Mann just borrowed from Melville and added pastels. You rightfully mention Melville, I just don't think Mann was that innovative or brought anything to the table. He makes a good thriller, but I don't get much more from them and find them mostly derivitive. Heat is basically Le Deuxieme Souffle updated for the 90's. I also was not a fan of The American at all, so if Drive is of that ilk, I'll be very disappointed.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks for the comment. I definitely see Mann as far more of a distinctive artist than you. I've written about him quite a bit (here, here, and here). And for a very precise dissection of his talent, I'd say to look no further than here. I just don't see Mann as merely a compilation of other filmmakers' techniques because he was able to use them as a starting point to build his own impressionistic style, and he has a firm and authentic grasp of the complex landscape of masculine emotions to boot, something that Refn hasn't quite developed.

Iammine78 said...

Look! It's a William Friedkin film! Look! It's a Michael Mann film! Look! It's a Walter Hill film! Look it's a John Hughes film! Refn is a confessed minimalist which is a touch ironic considering how many chef influences he throws in to "Drive" kitchen. At this point I'm convinced he'd proclaim the title itself is a reference to the existential journey of Driver as opposed to the presence of actual action in the film.

On top of that, I'm damn near convinced Ryan Gosling made a point to channel Robert DeNiro by watching "Godfather Part II", "Heat", and "Taxi Driver" as many times as possible. All for the sake of reflecting that same, inner authority and control that, at times, can be violently unleashed. As you mentioned, he ultimately comes across as merely aloof and disconnected to....well, everything. What a curious mess of a film.

Jon said...

@ Carson,

Yes thanks for the additional reading insights. I've seen several of his film, and actually really like Manhunter, The Insider, Collateral etc. He can be uneven though. Heat, Public Enemies and Miami Vice just do not work for me.

Chris said...

Good review! Exciting for Drive, if it's anything like Collatoral, then I think I'm in for an enjoyable watch.

Seems like everyone in the blogosphere is reviewing Drive, ha ha ( :
I was told its partly inspired by Vanishing Point (1971) - which I haven't seen either.

Interestingly, says on imdb the director Refn, and Ryan Gosling are re-teaming for Only God Forgives (2012)

Carson Lund said...

Brian, that's how I see it as well, an onslaught of references with a small core of authenticity. Refn, to me, seems like a "minimalist" by posture rather than by a strong artistic drive (forgive the pun) to strip things down.

Moviesandsongs365, I encourage you to see it! Whenever a film causes a critical storm like this it's totally worth your price of admission if only to join in a feverish conversation. Even though I didn't care much for it, I'm glad I was able to see it and I find the extratextual material quite stimulating! I'll certainly be seeing future Refn endeavors, because I think, despite his curious tendencies, he's a director to watch.

Diana said...

I also like the fact that this movie is giving people all around the world a topic to discuss!
I personally loved the movie and although, yes, Ryan Gosling was great, from my point of view, what I liked best was the style of the director, the way it was shot, made, edited, the soundtrack, it all fit together perfectly! For me, it was totally worth it- paying to see the movie, of course!

Rick Sumner said...

Ah, how refreshing to find a voice of reason, though you're still too kind. I was bitterly disappointed...and less kindly.

first of all (and I realize sullying the fair name of Gosling means I can no longer be a film snob this year), Gosling is horrible. All the way through. The very fact that you, me, and everyone else can see how hard he is trying, and exactly who he is trying to be means he has failed. I'm not even sure it's his fault...he seems more badly cast than anything. Michael Shannon would have been a better fit, but that still wouldn't have saved it.

More importantly, it's pretentious as hell. That in itself isn't necessary a death knell. Von Trier, Solondz, even Godard, lots of great directors have made careers out of pretentious films...films that wouldn't work without it.

But they earned it, and Drive emphatically does not. It has absolutely nothing to say, a poorly acted version of a story we've heard a million variations of, and despite that wealth of potential inspiration still fails utterly to go anywhere.

But it is pretty.

Carson Lund said...

Rick, I wanna say I agree with everything you've noted here, only perhaps not to the same level of vehement anger. It didn't get me riled up the way, say, Inception did last year, but it certainly didn't do much for me, just kind of gliding by without connecting me much. I think that's for the reasons you mention, particularly Gosling, who really has to carry the picture. I find his performance a bit more interesting than you do, but it's still lacking an essential core of naturalism.

I've said this a million times, but I'll say it again: I don't understand the term pretentious. It doesn't strike me as a fair criticism when all art (that is, art worthy of our attention) is trying to accomplish is something beyond easy human articulation. That's ambition, not pretension. Yes, Drive fails, but it's not pretentious. Also, I'm not sure what you think is pretentious about it.

Thanks for stopping by!

Jon said...


So I saw the film last night. I get that the film surely has a glossy veneer of references, but I believe that's only on the surface. What Refn brings to the table is far deeper than homage. What he's done is take the Melville/Mann setup and add operatic levels of sensitive melodrama, replete with comic-book gore. I've watched a lot of Fassbinder and Sirk this year, and this film has loads of this sort of melodramatic pastiche. I think it's glorious. I thought this made the film terrifically original. I mean the dream pop, the father figure, night in shining armour stuff? This is way different than Melville or Mann or anyone else you mentioned. It's just my perspective and I don't think Gosling is at all a replica of McQueen or Delon. He's far more sensitive and emotional than those guys were. I think this film is emo-noir and not like anything else. Just my opinion. Glad we can debate stuff like this.

Carson Lund said...

Jon, I appreciate your enthusiasm and your opinion. I guess I just didn't find there to be enough of a personality behind the camera, other than a perverse desire to heighten aggression and bloodlust. Those other qualities of the film - the fairy-tale aspect, the dream pop - felt to me like further thefts of arthouse tropes, if not springing from a specific influence then at least assembled from various filmmakers (Lynch, De Palma, Haynes).