Friday, January 06, 2012

Hey kid, you want a toothpick?

While James Sallis' novel Drive provides us with a backstory for its protagonist - a stuntman by day and getaway driver by night who is known only as "the Driver" - Hossein Amini's adaptation for Nicolas Winding Refn's film version of Drive gives us few details about who the Driver is. We know as much as his boss, body shop owner Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who explains that the Driver (Ryan Gosling) showed up at his garage a few years back and asked for a job. Stoic and elusive, the Driver never puts his experiences or motivations into words - he's a character defined entirely by what he does, rather than where he's been. What he does is drive, exceptionally well; in the opening sequence, we watch him on an assignment as a getaway driver, calm and focused as he eludes police cars and helicopters with astounding timing. The sequence is shot and edited with the same expert precision, culminating in a final reveal - deftly teased from the opening shot - that recalls De Palma at his best in the devilish pleasure Refn takes from waiting until the last possible moment to let us in on the joke. My pleasure at Refn's slight-of-hand never flagged during the following ninety minutes; Drive is, without a doubt, the best time I had at the movies last year.

Taking place on the lower rungs of the film industry and the margins of L.A.'s criminal underworld, Drive takes place in the hard, glossy urban terrain of Michael Mann, populated by assorted lowlifes who speak in the terse, clipped language of Walter Hill. This is film noir passed through the great contemporary American action filmmakers and taken to its logical endpoin. It's too emotionally direct to comfortably label "postmodern," but there is the sense, as the Driver and Shannon become involved with gangsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) - first as partner's in Shannon's plan to make the Driver a stock car racer, then as adversaries after a robbery gone wrong - of a way of life and cinema, of defining the good guys and bad guys, giving way to a murkier future. Refn, whose earlier film Bronson transformed the world of British prisons and asylums into a Theatre of the Absurd scored by the Pet Shop Boys, creates a world whose pop surfaces portray in bold strokes both the end of an era in pulp fiction and the immortality of the archetypal hero's journey.

Refn also feminizes the action film in surprising ways, from the glossy pink opening titles to the synthpop-heavy soundtrack. Drive reminds of Carol Clover's bisexual aesthetic, balancing a masculine, fetishistic reverence for machines and process with swooning romantic interludes. It's the Driver's silent affection for next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benecio (Kaden Leos) that sets the film's plot into motion - when Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Issac) is released from prison and finds himself quickly in hot water, the Driver helps him in order to help his wife and son. Mulligan is luminous in the film; there's a beautiful moment, as Desire's "Under Your Spell" plays on the soundtrack, when we watch Irene and the Driver silently yearn for each other on opposite sides of the wall dividing their apartments. Drive is as effective as it is because Refn is as invested in these quiet emotional moments as he is in the violent setpieces.

At first, I thought perhaps the relationship between the Driver and Irene was vaguely defined; later, I realized that an impromptu drive through the Los Angeles River is the closest thing to intimacy that the Driver is probably capable of. This is a character who is almost entirely motivated by a sense of romantic chivalry to the woman he loves; he's also a possible sociopath who hits another woman to find out what she knows and is capable of brutal assault and even murder without ever losing his cool. Gosling - who I used to find annoyingly mannered but who has, since Blue Valentine, has found the wit to match his obvious talent - does an excellent job of wordlessly conveying the Driver's internal extremes. The film's centerpiece, in this light, is a scene set in an elevator where an ecstatic emotional climax takes a jarring left turn into a violent confrontation that is a much more disturbing form of release. We're never sure if the Driver enjoys taking out the bad guys because he's sworn to protect Irene and Benecio, or if his self-appointed role as a knight in a Chevy Impala is a pretense for him to get off on beating the shit out of people. Of course, we could similarly question the motives of almost every action hero since Odysseus.

The entire movie strikes a similar balance, its approach to cinematic violence at once exhilarating and sobering. Its violence movies come in brief, controlled bursts, reminiscent of the climax of Sanjuro, that have a greater impact for their relative restraint. While Tom Hardy's Charles Bronson relished his role as an ass-kicking maniac in that film, here the characters are reluctant to kill each other for our entertainment. Even Bernie, the film's villain, assumes that role with great reluctance - he'd rather see the Driver race and is legitimately disappointed that his criminal partners have screwed that plan up. Brooks is a brilliant choice for Bernie; thanks to his warmth and our familiarity with his screen persona, we like Bernie and want to trust him, and can believe that he'd rather not hurt anyone. So when Brooks' acerbic wit gives way to cold, merciless self-preservation, he's one of the most frightening and memorable bad guys in recent memory. A moment when Bernie whispers reassurances to his dying victim that "It's all over now, there's no more pain" lingers in the memory more strongly than movies with ten times the body count. Drive is heavy with the sense of things we can't return to, and also alive with cinema's capacity for rebirth; when Gosling finally assumes the heroic status that Refn has granted him, with College's "A Real Hero" blasting on the soundtrack, Drive achieves pop transcendence. It's one for the ages.

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