Nicolas Winding Refn is the latest cinematic export from Denmark – the same country that brought us enfant terrible Lars von Trier. Like him, Refn is a cinematic button pusher known for creating violently stylish films where the protagonists undergo a transformation to become “what they were meant to be,” as the filmmaker has said in an interview. After making four films, Refn tried to break into Hollywood with Fear X (2003), but it was a commercial failure, forcing his production company into bankruptcy. He rebounded with the one-two punch of Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising (2009), the former a biopic about infamous British prisoner Michael Gordon Peterson, and the latter about the adventures of a Norse warrior during the Crusades. Both films were art house hits, but it would be Refn’s next film, Drive (2011) that would be his breakthrough in North America, garnering rave reviews, awards and very strong box office results.
Drive is a neon-drenched neo-noir that pays homage to stylish, yet minimalist narrative crime films like The Driver (1978) and Thief (1981) complete with a retro 1980s electronic score by Cliff Martinez that evokes the likes of Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder. Refn’s film features his most star-studded cast to date with the likes of Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman. When I first saw Drive I was unsure how I felt about it. The film was obviously made with great skill and was very stylish, but was it simply style for style’s sake? Was it like many of Quentin Tarantino’s films and simply a pastiche of other, better films? The more times I watch Drive the more I’m convinced that this is not the case and that there is more going on under its incredibly engaging façade, that there is enough of Refn’s thematic preoccupations to give the film its own identity.
Drive focuses on an unnamed taciturn Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who works as a getaway driver during his off-hours. We are introduced to the Driver as he helps two thieves pull off a job all to the ominous atmospheric sounds of “Tick of the Clock” by Chromatics. He doesn’t say much, but in the first five minutes we find out the rules he adheres to while on a job and just how good he is at it – monitoring the police band radio and knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the car he drives like it was an extension of himself.
The film’s layered soundscape during the opening chase sequence seamlessly mix Martinez’s electronic score, the police band radio, a sports match playing on the car radio, and the roar of the engine. This prologue is the ideal introduction to the world of this enigmatic driver. It’s not an entirely realistic one per se, but one heightened, almost like we are seeing everything through his eyes or we are inside his head where he lives out fantasies as an undefeatable superhero of sorts, rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress and her little boy. The Driver even has his own “superhero outfit” – a silver-colored jacket with a large yellow scorpion emblazoned on the back.
On the surface, the Driver is an expressionless blank slate who seems to be looking for something and may have found it with Irene (Carey Mulligan), the pretty woman that lives down the hall, but obstacles keep getting in the way, like her ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) or local crime boss Bernie (Albert Brooks) and his intimidating right-hand man Nino (Ron Perlman). Only Irene brings a smile to the Driver’s usually expressionless face and actually brings him out of his shell as is evident in the afternoon they spend together with her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Refn drenches this sequence in a warm, golden light as “A Real Hero” by College plays over the soundtrack. Irene humanizes the Driver and Carey Mulligan’s kind eyes and warm smile certainly make a convincing argument for how her character is able to cut through his impenetrable emotional armor. But since this is a noir, their happiness is doomed to be short-lived.
Ryan Gosling does an excellent job of portraying the stillness of the Driver. He is someone who doesn’t waste time with needless movements or words. If the Driver doesn’t say much throughout the film it’s because those around him talk too much, whether it is his nervously chatty mechanic mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston) or the menacingly charming Bernie. Everything he does has a purpose. The actor is also able to portray his character’s unnerving capacity for bone-crunching violence that lurks under the Driver’s calm surface and that only comes out when provoked. Usually pretty boy actors like Gosling try to act tough and fail, but with the help of Refn, he transforms into a credible badass. It’s all in the eyes, which Gosling alternates between inviting, like when the Driver is with Irene, or all icy intensity like when he and those that are important to him are threatened. The Driver does show glimmers of emotion, like the look of remorse he demonstrates when he finds out Shannon’s fate.
Albert Brooks is quite the revelation as the ruthless Bernie. Known predominantly for playing passive-aggressive neurotics in films like Broadcast News (1987) and Mother (1996), he is cast wonderfully against type in Drive. Much like Bill Murray in Mad Dog and Glory (1993), Brooks is able to use his funnyman persona as his character’s façade only to show the nasty brutality that exists when things go sour. Brooks is able to go from genial to lethal on a dime and it is easy to see why the actor received so much acclaim for his performance.
Refn is certainly an accomplished director – there’s no question about that. The car chases are exciting and intense white-knuckle affairs, as is the jarring, blood-splattered violence that is brief and visceral and very stylishly depicted in that cool, Tarantino kind of way – only minus the humor. What saves Drive from being merely an empty exercise in cool style is the supporting cast, which humanizes the Driver character. While he is largely devoid of personality, those around him are rich with it, from the gregarious Nino to the grizzled Shannon. It is Irene, however, who gives the Driver’s life a sense of purpose. She motivates him to protect her and Benicio from anyone who might hurt them including an intense scene in an elevator where the Driver kills one of Nino’s flunkies. Right before this happens, the Driver turns around and kisses Irene. As this happens, the lighting changes noticeably as if time has stopped, as if it wasn’t really happening – perhaps only in his imagination. Then, real-time kicks in as he proceeds to stomp the henchman’s head in with sickening brutality. This scene sums up Drive in a nutshell – a stylish, romantic film interspersed with sudden, jarring acts of brutality.
Producer Adam Siegel was looking for a potential movie idea in Publisher’s Weekly when he came across a small review for James Sallis’ novel Drive. Intrigued by the premise of a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver, Siegel read the novel immediately. He and his co-producer Mark E. Platt were taken with Drive’s protagonist, an unnamed getaway driver that was “an enigmatic reserved individual who lived by a very distinctive code,” Platt remembered.
They hired Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) in 2005 to adapt the book and he was drawn to the “extraordinary characters” with a very simple plot running through it.” However, the novel didn’t have a linear story, delving frequently into flashbacks, which made it a challenge to adapt. It was important for the Driver’s point-of-view to be preserved because it was distinctive. Originally, the project had a home at Universal Pictures as a potential franchise for Hugh Jackman to star and Neil Marshall in the director’s chair with a $60 million budget. The studio wanted it done in the vein of the Fast and Furious movies. By 2010, both Jackman and Marshall had left the project and Platt approached Ryan Gosling, an actor he had always wanted to work with. The producer heard back from the actor within a couple of days and he was interested in doing it. Gosling was drawn to the project because he had always wanted to be in an action movie, but found most contemporary ones to be “more on action and little less character.” This was not the case with Drive.
Upon accepting the gig, Gosling used his newfound clout within the industry to choose the director he wanted. The actor watched a lot of films, but when he saw Nicolas Winding Refn’s work he knew that the was the right person for the job. Gosling assumed that Refn wouldn’t be interested because Drive was unlike anything he had done before. Regardless, he sent Refn the script. At the time, director was in Los Angeles developing a Paul Schrader script for a film called, The Dying of the Light with Harrison Ford. However, the project fell apart when the actor didn’t want his character to die. Refn wasn’t taken with the story of Drive, but rather “the concept and idea that there was a man who had split personalities, by being a stunt man by day and a getaway driver by night.” He compared the Driver to a werewolf, “because deep down he’s a man who’s psychotic, but he’s also a man who’s two people – he’s one person by day and one person by night.”
Gosling and Refn met for the first time over dinner for two hours. They didn’t talk about Drive specifically, but rather films in general. Refn had been suffering through a cold and had taken a lot of medicine and was feeling tired. He asked Gosling to drive him home. On the way, “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” by REO Speedwagon came on the radio and the director enthusiastically sang along with it. Inspired by the song, Refn spontaneously gained insight into Drive. He told Gosling that the film was about “a man who drives around listening to pop songs at night because that’s his emotional relief.” They wanted to make “Pretty in Pink with a head smashing,” as Gosling always felt that John Hughes’ films needed a little violence, imaging the film being about “a guy who’s seen so many movies that he turned himself into his own super hero and made his own super hero costume.” He and Refn began their collaboration on the project.
With the strong script and the likes of Gosling and Refn on board, the rest of the cast came together quickly. Carey Mulligan had seen Bronson and was so impressed by it that she told her agent that she wanted to work with Refn. Three weeks later, she got the script for Drive. Originally, Refn was looking for a Latina actress and had met with several, but none were right for the role. When he met Mulligan, he knew she was right for the role. The director sought out Bryan Cranston for the role of Shannon and the script convinced the actor to do the film. Gosling and Refn thought that Albert Brooks would be good for Bernie, but figured he wouldn’t be interested because the character was “so violent, so dark,” said Gosling. Refn met with Brooks and was impressed by his “volcano-ish way where you have this sense that he’s about to snap at any moment.”
While working on the script with Refn, Amini moved in with the director and his family. Then, Mulligan did as well because she didn’t have a place to stay while making the film. Refn’s place took on a communal atmosphere: “Ryan would come by all the time. It was very collaborative. All we needed was a lot of cocaine and it would have been like 1973.”
For the look of the film, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects) kept “the wide angle feeling with a lot of depth and a lot of background to it.” Refn picked him to shoot Drive because he liked the man’s energy and his background as a documentary filmmaker. As an added bonus, Sigel had worked as a cameraman on Lucifer Rising (1972) a film by Kenneth Anger, one of Refn’s heroes. So, the first visual reference Sigel showed Refn was Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963), which fetishized guys working on motorcycles. When Refn questioned this pick, Sigel told him that Drive should convey the same kind of “sensual, sexual nature of it, the fetish, the objectification.”
To compose the score, Refn hired Cliff Martinez, impressed with his work on Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). The director wanted the soundtrack to consist predominantly of electronic music with some of it being abstract as if conveyed from the Driver’s perspective. Refn gave Martinez a sampler of music that he liked and told him that he wanted a soundtrack akin to the synth-pop music from the ‘80s. Martinez started off with an ambient-heavy score, but Refn was concerned that it would “take energy from the film,” and it evolved into something more rhythmic.
Drive received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The entire film, in fact, seems much more real than the usual action-crime-chase concoctions we’ve grown tired of. Here is a movie with respect for writing, acting and craft. It has respect for knowledgeable moviegoers.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum felt that the film, “revels in sensory detail; it’s a visually and aurally edgy Euro-influenced American genre movie about the coolness of noir-influenced American genre movies about the coolness of driving – especially in L.A.” In her review for the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday praised Gosling for delivering, “a slow, white-hot burn of a performance,” in “a nervy, understated ode to one of Hollywood’s most cherished archetypes, the sad-eyed man of few words.” USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “This art-house crime saga has a distinctly European sensibility. The film slows down to a deliberate pace, then revs on a dime to frantic speeds.” However, in his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “This is not to say the movie is bad – as I have suggested, the skill and polish are hard to dispute – but rather that it is, for all its bravado, timid and conventional.”
Drive wears its influences on it sleeve, most notably in the sequences that bookend the film. Refn’s film begins much like Walter Hill’s The Driver with the protagonist being introduced as he efficiently pulls off a job that wordlessly demonstrates his considerable skills. Drive ends much like Michael Mann’s Thief with the protagonist wounded yet victorious, albeit stripped of the only things that meant anything to him. Like many Mann protagonists, the Driver is defined by what he does. He has his own code of rules by which he lives by. He only gets in trouble when he breaks these rules. The Driver has to keep things simple and it is only when life gets complicated by the presence of Irene and Bernie that he runs into trouble. The only solution is to remove these complications.
It is easy to see why Drive was so well-received – it is a slick, stylish crime film that looks and sounds cool, but there is more going on underneath the attractive surface. There’s Gosling’s soulful performance and an inspired, vicious turn by Brooks. Orbiting these two actors is a talented supporting cast that bring their archetypal characters to life by how they look, talk, and, most importantly, act. Drive works as several things. Gosling saw it as a kind of Brothers Grimm fairy tale with the Driver as a knight, Irene as the princess in the tower that needed to be rescued from Bernie, the evil wizard, while Nino is the dragon that must be slayed. At its heart, Drive is a boyhood fantasy, an R-rated superhero movie, but without the conventional trappings of the genre. It is an art-house power fantasy that allows us to live vicariously through the Driver, a good-looking character capable of performing impressive feats of strength and skill, all for the love of a beautiful woman. However, Refn fuses this with the neo-noir to add a tragic element where the protagonist must sacrifice his own happiness so that those he cares about may live.
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