"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, August 30, 2013

Le Mans

If Michael Mann were to ever direct a racing car film it would probably resemble Le Mans (1971), a passion project for its star Steve McQueen, himself an avid racing car enthusiast. Much like Mann’s recent work, Le Mans eschews conventional narrative storytelling in favor of an impressionistic approach with an emphasis on visual storytelling and a surprising lack of dialogue. In some respects, McQueen is the auteur of the film, committing so much time and resources that it bankrupted him because the actor refused to compromise the vision he had for it – the beauty and a sense of purity in racing. McQueen believed in the relationship between man and machine and the notion that you’re not only racing against an opponent, but also yourself in terms of mental and physical endurance, which Le Mans explores in fascinating ways.

Known as the 24 Hours of LeMans, it is the oldest active endurance racing sports car race in the world. It began in 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France and occurs during the European summer in June. The race starts in mid-afternoon, runs through the night and finishes the next day at the same time it started. Racing teams maintain a tricky balancing act between speed and the car’s capacity to run for 24 hours. Also, the drivers are put to the test, often spending more than two hours racing before stopping in the pits to switch control over to a relief driver.

Le Mans prologue establishes its unconventional approach as Gulf Porsche Team driver Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) cruises through the French countryside. He spots Lisa Belgetti (Elga Anderson) buying flowers, which provokes him to drive to the scene of an accident that occurred during the previous 24 hours of the Le Mans auto race where he was injured while rival driver Piero Belgetti was killed. The entire sequence and subsequent flashback Delaney experiences is all conveyed without any dialogue as the film shows us everything we need to know, like a shot of the new section of guardrail that was replaced after the accident. The flashback itself is an almost abstract collection of sights and sounds: round circles of light at night to the roar of engines taking us back to that fateful time. The crash is not actually shown, but conveyed through editing with a shot of Belgetti’s frightened face, a shot of the guardrail, a fiery explosion, a stray tire rolling away, and ending with a shot of the man’s racing helmet lying on the ground, the flaming wreck reflected in its broken visor. Whether he was responsible for it or not, Delaney feels some burden of guilt for what happened.

The opening credits play over the sleepy French town of Le Mans before the race starts with many spectators camped out in tents from the night before. We see the town come to life as preparations for the race are depicted documentary style over the snazzy jazz soundtrack by Michel Legrand. The filmmakers immerse us in the sights and sounds of the event so that we almost feel a part of it. Like many films from the late 1960s and early 1970s, Le Mans adopts a cinema verite style to create a sense of immediacy and realism by mixing actual footage of the race with staged scenes that dramatize Delaney’s story on and off the track. In this respect, it resembles Medium Cool (1969), which preceded it, only doing for car racing what that film did for politics and journalism.

Instead of using title cards or have some character explain it, the rules for the race are explained by the race announcer as we see various drivers getting ready. This is a wonderful example of the narrative economy at work as the filmmakers opt to show us as much as possible and tell us little, leaving it up to the viewer to pay close attention to what is going on. The way a character moves or how he acts or reacts to others tells us what they are feeling at a given moment. This unusual approach takes some time to acclimatize to as we are used to most films telling us everything, spelling things out so that there is little nuance or ambiguity – something that Le Mans is steeped in.

A stretch of the race becomes increasingly dangerous with the onset of rain and this not only makes the roads wet, but very difficult to manage. Visibility is poor as the Porsche and Ferrari teams engage in a battle of wills as the respective team managers see who will bring their team in last and switch tires to compensate for the weather. Then, it becomes a contest between who has the more efficient pit crew as we see these men hard at work, the camera lingering on the minutia of their actions. This sequence is cinematic catnip for gearheads and racing enthusiasts.

With the character of Lisa, Le Mans shows how the car racing lifestyle affects the loved ones of the racers. She looks a little haunted, walking through the staging area, watching her husband’s team go on without him. In between racing shifts, Delaney sits down with her at a cafeteria and they finally cut through the tension between them. Not much is said, but the looks they exchange speak volumes. Delaney and Lisa reconnect after he crashes his car later on in the race and in his trailer she asks him, “What is so important about driving faster than anybody else?” He replies, “A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re going racing it … it’s life. Anything that happens before or after … is just waiting.” This is a beautifully acted scene, especially by McQueen who delivers this iconic line almost matter-of-factly, spoken by a man who has seen the highs and lows of racing and continues to do so because he is in the pursuit of excellence. He wants to be among the very best of his profession because he feels compelled, he’s driven to do it and this is something few people truly understand and appreciate. It really is the key line of dialogue that defines the film and explains Delaney’s motivations.

Le Mans shows how a seemingly minor mistake, like overcompensating just a little to avoid a stalled out car or being briefly distracted by a crash, can result in a fiery crash that is edited rather dramatically. The crash itself is a noisy affair, but as the dazed driver crawls out of the wreckage and attempts to get away, there is no sound, which only enhances the unbelievable tension until the car explodes, sending its driver sprawling. During this sequence, the editing depicts it rapidly from several different angles in a very kinetic and visceral way that would anticipate what contemporary action films would do by many years.

Le Mans also touches upon the parasitic nature of the press corp. that swarms all over Lisa after Delaney’s crash. She is blindsided by a barrage of flashbulbs going off and questions directed at her until Delaney steps in and protectively leads her over to a car so she can escape. When a journalist asks Delaney how this crash compares to the one last year that involved her husband, he just gives the reporter that trademark intense McQueen look and walks off.

As far back as The Magnificent Seven (1960), Steve McQueen had wanted to make a racing movie with John Sturges, who had worked with the actor on the aforementioned film and The Great Escape (1963), directing and Warner Brothers distributing. It was to be called Day of the Champion and was to be made after McQueen had finished making The Sand Pebbles (1966). However, MGM was making a racing car movie called Grand Prix (1966) starring James Garner, which was able to get into production before McQueen’s film. The actor was upset that he found out about this in a newspaper and that Garner, a friend of McQueen’s, didn’t tell him. As a result, McQueen didn’t talk to Garner for an entire year.

McQueen was determined to make the definitive racing movie and felt that Le Mans was the best race to depict because it represented the spirit of auto racing. After Warner Bros. canceled Day of the Champion, CBS’ film division, Cinema Center, agreed to finance his racing film, now called Le Mans, for $6 million with Sturges still on board to direct. Amazingly, the project was given the go-ahead without a finished screenplay as McQueen and Sturges disagreed over the content. The director felt that the film should feature a love story while the actor wanted to go the pseudo-documentary route.

Principal photography began on June 6, 1970 with 20,000 props and 26 race cars to be driven by 52 world-class drivers. The film crew was a mix of French and Americans with crowd extras that sometimes exceeded more than 350,000 people. During filming, three different writers were hired to create their own versions of the script. Incredibly, they were competing against each other instead of working together.

Unfortunately, the production couldn’t use any of the footage Sturges had shot prior at the 1969 Le Mans race because the Gulf-Porsche Team that McQueen’s character was a part of had been eliminated early on when their car crashed. A mock race would have to be staged, adding millions to the budget. In addition, Sturges was having difficulty directing McQueen. At that point in his career, the actor was a big movie star and according to the director, McQueen was “in a power position, so if he didn’t like a line, he didn’t read it. If he didn’t want to say anything, he didn’t.”

The budget continued to grow as some of the best drivers in the world had been hired at considerable expense and a crash involving six cars, each one of them costing $5,000, was added to the shooting schedule. Word got back to Cinema Center that the production was out of control and executives soon arrived on location much to McQueen’s chagrin. The production was shut down for two weeks and Cinema Center even toyed with the idea of replacing McQueen with Robert Redford.

McQueen was under a lot of stress and didn’t want to shut down his passion project. He agreed to forfeit his $750,000 salary and any points he’d get in gross profits as well as relinquishing creative control. Sturges wanted to work on the script with McQueen, but the actor was taking his wife Niele to Monaco in an attempt to salvage their marriage. The director felt that the actor was being very unprofessional and this was the final straw. He left the production. The producers had to scramble to find a new director and Cinema Center enlisted Lee Katzin who was about to shoot a television movie for them. Three days after getting the call, he was in France. McQueen resented Katzin being imposed on him and was difficult to work with for the first six weeks. Then, one day, while Katzin was trying to figure out what to shoot, McQueen approached him and said, “I see what you’re trying to do and I’m going to work for you and not against you.”

To add to the production’s woes, Le Mans still didn’t have a lead actress. McQueen wanted Diana Rigg, but she was unavailable. The studio brought in Maud Adams, but once McQueen saw that she was taller then him the actor wanted someone else, which ended up being German actress Elga Andersen (Bonjour tristesse). Meanwhile, the production was plagued by two accidents. A Porsche caught on fire and was ruined. Fortunately, the driver escaped serious injury. During filming, another Porsche hit a guardrail at 200 mph and broke into several pieces. The driver survived, but his right leg had to be amputated below the knee.

Principal photography dragged on – originally scheduled to end in September 1970, but continuing on into November. Even while trying to salvage his marriage, McQueen was having an affair with actress Louise Edlind and other women. Niele and their children came to visit McQueen in France and he admitted to seeing other women, which understandably upset his wife. She admitted to having an affair herself and an angry McQueen put a gun to her head. Not surprisingly, she and the kids went back to the United States soon afterwards.

Filming was finally completed in November and the production had gone $1.5 million over budget. It took over six months to edit 450,000 feet of film into something resembling a story with the studio shutting McQueen out of the post-production process. Le Mans was released in June 1971 and the critics were not kind. The New York Times’ Howard Thompson wrote, “Racing buffs will probably flip over it but mostly it’s a bore.” In her review for the New York Daily News, Kathleen Carroll wrote, “There was no attempt at characterization. Le Mans is an excuse for Steve McQueen to indulge his passion for auto racing and to show off his skills as a racing driver.” Finally, Time magazine’s Jay Cocks wrote, “Le Mans may be the most famous auto race in the world, but from a theater seat it just looks like a big drag.” The film made $19 million worldwide, but McQueen ended up owing the IRS $2 million in back taxes. He was forced to shut down his production company and turn over any profits to the government.

At its best, Le Mans recreates what it must’ve been like to not only witness this famous race, but actually be in it. The race sequences are dynamically shot, alternating between long shots of the action and you-are-there point-of-view shots that do an excellent job of conveying the speed and intensity of the race. Very little music plays over these sequences in favor of the deafening roar of the car engines. Legrand’s music has a swanky ‘60s Euro jazz vibe that suits the film quite well. Throughout, Le Mans subverts the expectations of a stereotypical racing film, right down to the ending, which doesn’t see Delaney win personally, but his teams does, which is something a more traditional movie like Days of Thunder (1990) doesn’t do because it is all about the flash and the spectacle. There is a reason why Le Mans is still admired by racing enthusiasts after all these years – it is a pure expression of what it means to race at very high speeds and put your life at risk.


Terrill, Marshall. Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel. Plexus: London. 1993.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Nicole Kidman’s career can be seen in terms of everything she did before Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and everything she’s done since. Before making Stanley Kubrick’s film, she was known mostly for appearing in lightweight fare like Days of Thunder (1990) and Practical Magic (1998), but working so intensely and for so long with a master filmmaker like Kubrick inspired the Australian actress to up her game and led to a fascinating selection of diverse projects – some great (Dogville), the not-so great (Bewitched) and the underrated (The Golden Compass). As she said in a career retrospective interview, “I’ve never been in a film that was universally lauded so I don’t know that feeling. But I know the feeling of polarizing films, that make people angry and uncomfortable and I’m very comfortable with that.”

An example of one such polarizing film was Birth (2004), a haunting drama directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast). Kidman plays a woman whose husband dies suddenly and may have been reincarnated as a boy ten years later. The film divided critics and under-performed at the box office, but remains her best performance since Eyes Wide Shut and, rather fittingly, very Kubrickian in look and feel. This is evident in the opening scene – an elegant tracking shot of a man running through New York City’s snowbound Central Park. The preceding voiceover belongs to the man who says that he doesn’t believe in reincarnation even if his wife died and came back as a bird because he is a man of science. The irony is that while out jogging he dies and may or may not have been reincarnated as a boy ten years later. The film’s impressive opening tracking shot was conducted by none other than Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (The Shining) who was hired for one day. It was originally supposed to be done on a wire/rig, but this was not possible when the authorities wouldn’t allow Glazer to remove branches and leaves from a few trees in Central Park.

Anna (Nicole Kidman) still mourns the death of her husband Sean as evident from her introductory scene where she visits her husband’s gravesite, wiping away tears. In a nice touch, she places her hand on his tombstone. Ten years have passed and it is winter again with virtually the same snowy landscape in which he died. She is engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston), who seems like a nice enough man, but she doesn’t seem to be deeply in love with him. I think she likes the idea of being in love with him, but doesn’t actually care for him in that way, not like with Sean. It’s almost as if she thinks that getting engaged to Joseph is what is expected of her, that she’s supposed to move on when enough time has passed and get married to someone else.

Then, a boy (Cameron Bright) claiming to be her deceased husband Sean comes into her life and preys on every doubt and insecurity she has about getting remarried. One night, he interrupts the birthday celebration for Anna’s mother (Lauren Bacall) to tell her not to marry Joseph. The boy says it matter-of-factly and quite unlike a child. Understandably, Anna doesn’t believe him and, initially, doesn’t take it seriously. However, Sean persists, sending Anna a note reiterating his desire for her not to marry Joseph who, naturally wants to know more about the boy. He even speaks to the child’s father (Ted Levine) who tells his son to stay away from Anna, but he refuses. In this scene, Sean doesn’t act like a petulant child, but rather calmly and persistently refuses to stop seeing Anna.

The argument escalates until Sean collapses in an apartment building hallway and this rattles Anna so much that she is unable to enjoy the opera she and Joseph attend afterwards. In an amazing sequence, the camera stays on her face for an extended period of time so that we see a whole range of conflicted emotions play across her delicate features. Kidman conveys this all with her expressive eyes in a moving scene. It is an impressive bit of acting from the actress who wisely underplays the moment instead of going for a showy, tearful approach. According to Glazer, “it’s really the first time in the film that we’re alone with her, and all the prior events are rolled into this one shot as she mulls it over, as we do. We can watch her open these little doors in her mind.” Glazer originally shot this sequence to Richard Wagner’s first prelude to The Ring of the Nibelung cycle (which plays over the closing moments), but he found that the second prelude had “a sense of things moving on and I wanted that.”

Sean maintains that he’s Anna’s husband, even to his parents. Why? He persists, calling and leaving a message for Anna to meet him in the park at the spot where her husband collapsed and died. Later on, he’s even questioned by Anna’s sister’s husband (Arliss Howard) and seems to hold up quite well, knowing intimate details about Anna and Sean’s sex life. For such a young actor, Cameron Bright delivers an impressive performance, resisting the temptation to act like a typical little boy and instead behaving more like someone wise beyond their years, like an adult trapped in a boy’s body. He delivers Sean’s dialogue in a plain, expressionless way that is unnerving because he seems so sure of himself.

Anna admits to Sean’s brother (Peter Stormare) and his wife Clara (Anne Heche) that since he died, life without him hasn’t gotten easier and she hasn’t let go of his memory. She admits that it is a crazy notion to believe that this boy is her dead husband. Anna admits to falling in love with him again via the boy and in this scene Kidman conveys an honesty and vulnerability that is heartbreaking. We are seeing a woman that is beginning to believe that this kid may be her deceased husband. The more time she spends with him, the more doubts she has about her impending marriage to Joseph.

Birth is anchored by an astonishing performance from Nicole Kidman, who delivers on the promise she showed in Eyes Wide Shut with a layered portrayal of a conflicted woman. The emotional range she displays during the film is complex. She avoids attention-grabbing histrionics for something more nuanced, utilizing an array of subtle facial expressions that convey Anna’s internal turmoil. Near the end of the film, Anna lays it all out for Joseph and tells him what she wants – to be happy and have a good life – things that everyone wants. It’s a simple and honest admission, which Kidman delivers with heartfelt sincerity. One has to give the actress credit for eschewing box office clout for more challenging fare in the 2000s (and beyond), appearing in some truly interesting films and turning in some great performances, chief among them Birth.

Danny Huston does an excellent slow burn as Anna’s fiancé. Initially, he doesn’t take the boy seriously, but over the course of the film he gets increasingly frustrated. Huston has a nice scene where Joseph is stood up by Anna (for the boy) and we see him staring out the window of a place that they were supposed to look at with the possibility of living together. As the camera slowly zooms in on him we see a mixture of anger and hurt play over his face as he realizes that Anna is gradually slipping away. His frustration over the whole situation finally comes to a boil at a recital when Sean repeatedly kicks his chair. Joseph finally explodes, physically attacking the boy. The way Huston reacts to this bratty behavior (the first time we’ve seen Sean act like a boy his age) is amusing and a bit scary, but you have to feel for the guy. Joseph has been incredibly patient with Anna up to this point and one could sense that this outburst was coming.

Anne Heche and Peter Stormare are cast wonderfully against type. Both have played their share of eccentric characters with larger than life traits, but in Birth Glazer dials them back so that they deliver earthy, naturalistic performances. Heche, in particular, is a minor revelation, especially during the scene where Clara tests the boy’s knowledge of Sean with some startling admissions of her own.

Birth takes place in the same rarefied Upper East Side upper crust milieu as Eyes Wide Shut. It feels and even looks like these characters could exist in the same world as the one Kubrick created. The protagonists in both films are driven by fear with Bill in Eyes Wide Shut afraid of his wife’s fantasy of committing infidelity, while Anna is afraid of getting remarried. Glazer adopts some of the master’s trademark techniques from that film, including medium compositions, the use of zooms, and tracking shots. Alexandre Desplat’s score for Birth, with its elegant, classical orchestrations, also evokes Eyes Wide Shut, at times. There are Kubrickian elements from other films, like when Joseph attacks the boy, which is reminiscent of a similar scene in Barry Lyndon (1975) and the bit where the hotel desk clerk bounces a ball against the lobby wall, which is a sly reference to the same action in The Shining (1980). With its sublimely framed scenes and Harris Savides’ breathtaking cinematography, Birth is the best Kubrick film the man never made.

Birth began as a one-paragraph idea that director Jonathan Glazer thought up years ago. He gave it to Jean-Claude Carriere (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) who wrote the screenplay with Robin Wright Penn in mind to play Anna. Initially, the script focused more on the boy’s story. Then, Glazer brought in Milo Addica (Monster’s Ball) and they reworked the plot, shifting the focus to Anna. It was at this point that Glazer met Nicole Kidman. She had not received a copy of the script, but came across it and contacted him. The director met her in Los Angeles over lunch and after talking with her for 20 minutes, offered the actress the part of Anna. Addica kept working on the script right through much of principal photography, claiming to have worked on more than 21 drafts.

After Cameron Bright was cast as the boy, Glazer rewrote a lot of the script. At first, he was afraid that the young actor was too closely associated with the “creepy kid” he played in Godsend (2004), but Carriere told him to stay young with the child. Bright was nine-years-old at the time and Glazer “found something very adult in him – and something very vague, which allows Anna to imbue him with what she wants.” He never gave Bright the script to read and instead told him that his character was telling the truth and nobody believed him.” According to Glazer, it was his job to make sure Bright “was convincing.”

In a sequence that caused a bit of controversy at one point Anna shares a bath with the young boy. It is depicted tastefully and all they do is talk, but it shows how much he has gotten under her skin. For the tub scene, if Kidman was naked, Bright could not be in the same room. In the shots where they are in the tub together, they both wore clothing that wasn’t visible on camera. Glazer made sure to give Bright simple directions during this sequence.

Initially, Glazer had trouble articulating the visual style he wanted for Birth until he and cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac) did a location scout of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The dark marble and warm colors of its lobby were exactly the look he wanted. To achieve it, Savides lit interiors from overhead and through muslin while also underexposing the film stock significantly. With this look, Glazer was “trying for a claustrophobic formality” and drew inspiration from Rashomon (1950), The Shining, and Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

Having only made one film before, the British gangster film Sexy Beast (2000), Birth was Glazer’s first experience with an American studio, which he said was “like being hit in the back of the head with a bat.” He spent nearly a year editing the film – unusual for one without elaborate special effects. While he was trying to figure out the tone of the film, being careful not to veer into Stephen King territory, his relationship with the studio became strained. They complained that Glazer failed to communicate the film’s progress. He admitted, “I was forever cutting, trying to make it work,” eventually removing 25 minutes from an early version. The director and the studio also clashed over the film’s look and, at one point, Kidman appealed to the studio on Glazer’s behalf for more money to shoot additional scenes. He had finished the film under its original $25 million budget and wanted to use the remainder for additional scenes. While the studio was upset that used Kidman as his proxy, they allowed him the time and money to shoot additional scenes.

Not surprisingly, Birth polarized critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and compared it to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but felt that Glazer’s film was “less sensational and more ominous, and also more intriguing because instead of going for quick thrills, it explores what might really happen if a 10-year-old turned up and said what Sean says.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Without Ms. Kidman’s brilliantly nuanced performance, Birth might feel arch, chilly and a little sadistic, but she gives herself so completely to the role that the film becomes both spellbinding and heartbreaking, a delicate chamber piece with the large, troubled heart of an opera.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “If Birth is not a wire-to-wire success, the skill and intensity with which it’s done make it more involving than some more conventionally successful efforts.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “When Kidman slithers into a bathtub with her young ‘husband,’ the scene, in its soft-pedaled way, is the definition of exploitation: It appears to have been cooked up for no other purpose than to conjure creepy child-porn overtones.” In his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “What I’m not so fond of is the cop-out ultimately taken by the filmmakers, who can’t seem to follow through on their promisingly metaphysical premise … electing instead to eliminate all ambiguity.”

So, how does the boy do it? How does he seem to know all the details about Anna’s husband’s life? He did see Clara bury a box of her brother-in-law’s letters, dug them up and read them. Is he really Anna’s dead husband? Does it matter? Glazer manages to eschew a fantastical explanation in favor of a logical one, but the motivation behind it is still a mystery. Why did the boy do it? What was he hoping to accomplish? It is the one tantalizing question that lingers long after the film ends. Whether Sean is reincarnated or not is beside the point.

Birth is about a woman wracked with self-doubt, still clinging to the past and the memory of a man she obviously loved very much. The final scene is a troubling one as it appears that Anna is unable to find the peace she wants, the happiness she’s looking for, which leaves things tantalizingly ambiguous. Can you truly forget a love like that? Should you? Birth doesn’t give us any easy answers and instead lets us decide for ourselves. This refusal to spoon-feed easy answers is probably what doomed it commercially, but is why it continues to resonate. Glazer’s film is a beautifully shot, deliberately paced mystery that has enough ambiguity so that by the end you're thinking about what you just saw for days afterwards.


Carroll, Larry. “Giving Birth to Controversy.” FilmStew. October 31, 2004.

Clarke, Roger. “Grief Encounter.” Sight and Sound. November 2004.

Horn, John. “Labor Stress Made for a Painful Birth.” Los Angeles Times. October 27, 2004.

Lim, Dennis. “Cinematographer Harris Savides on Trust, Birth, and Invisible Light.” Village Voice. October 26, 2004.

Perez, Rodrigo. “Nicole Kidman Talks Working with Stanley Kubrick, Lars Von Trier & More at The New York Film Festival.” The Playlist. October 5, 2012.

Winter, Jessica. “Birth Control.” Village Voice. October 26, 2004.

Friday, August 16, 2013


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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