In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) tells his newly hired stunt and getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) that he used to produce B-movie genre films, which the critics called “European…I called them trash.” That description fits the abyss that Drive attempts to jump, Dukes of Hazard/General Lee-style, between trash (the heist-thriller genre) and art cinema (particularly the existentially infused crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville). Taking on a mode of filmmaking similar to both Michael Mann and Jean-Luc Godard, directors whose films cross-pollinate pulp narratives with a cool exploration of film form, Refn sticks the landing without the danger of a catastrophic rollover, taking cinephiles on a ride beyond their wildest imaginations.
The film begins with a taut chase sequence, running smoothly over the electronic ambiance of Cliff Martinez’s score as the driver out-maneuvers patrol cars and police helicopters on the moon drenched streets of Los Angeles. The climax of the chase – which I will not spoil here – is minimally telegraphed to us in advance, and the moment Gosling moves, the final piece of the sequence is a huge reward that embodies the soul of the film: emotionless, intellectual, and yet suspenseful to the point of agony.
Yet, the lawless nightlife of Gosling’s driver (yes, the driver goes through the film without a name, existentially and socially defined only by his occupation) only minimally intersects with his day job as a mechanic and protégée of injured stunt driver and grease monkey Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Shannon plans to turn the driver into a stock car champion, and he solicits a couple hundred grand from Rose and his partner Nino (Ron Perlman). Meanwhile, Gosling attempts to seek some sort of companionship. He befriends his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son (Kaden Leos). They share a weekend in Los Angeles together, after which Irene tells the driver that her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) will soon be released from prison.
Thankfully, the film avoids clichés and doesn’t turn the driver’s relationship with Irene into territory defined by jealousy or violence. While Standard initially views the driver with suspicion, he discovers after a violent encounter with Cook (James Biberi) that the stuntman is a friendly asset. Together, with Standard’s associate Blanche (Christina Hendricks), the trio hatches a plan to rob a pawn shop and pay Standard’s debt off to Cook. Unfortunately, as things often do in the bleak world of film noir, the heist goes violently awry and the driver soon finds himself in possession of a million dollars while being pursued by Cook, Rose, and Nino.
That said, the driver’s actions on his quest to set things right open up a bit of an aesthetic can of worms for Refn. The beginning of the film only hints at violence –a broken pelvis, a bloody lip, etc. – yet, once the heist goes awry, Refn gives us a bit of the old ultra violence. He arguably catches the clutch a bit when he shifts from second gear, the implication of violence (like Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999), which plays hide and seek with conflict), to Cronenbergian (a head is blown apart by a shot gun blast and someone’s face is stomped in like an overly ripe cantaloupe) third gear. It’s jarring, and it should be, especially coming from the business end of the driver. It makes us question his past and wonder what happened that gave him this capability for physical harm, which is largely repressed (as it is for Viggio Mortensen’s Tom in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005)). However, I can see where such a shift in aesthetic approach to violence can both turn off viewers and feel somewhat shallow. If this were another minimalist film portraying its protagonist as void of moral value, embellishing our direct perception of him only through his gruesome acts of violence, it would come across as a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Thankfully, this isn’t that movie.
Refn avoids making an exploitation flick by passively defining the driver. While the driver is, very much, an active character, choosing his jobs and who to share his companionship with, he doesn’t speak about his feelings, and his face is a blank slate incapable of any expression. We learn about him from his reactions to his father figure Shannon – the aging fuck-up – Irene, and her family. This would be awfully boring if it wasn’t for the quotable gutter trash citizenry that populates the film’s (which was adapted by Hossein Aminiby from James Sallis’ novel) take on Los Angeles and the performances by Cranston and Brooks in particular. Gosling has a difficult role to play because of Refn’s understatement here. Granted, when the driver acts, it’s a significant event. Yet, it’s the quiet moments when the man comes out, being wounded and protective…Gosling draws upon that restrained naturalism that only he has.
I hope my description of the film has done everything in its power to dismantle any expectation on behalf of the reader that this is a The Fast and the Furious–type movie. The car chases – when they come – are short, lean, and mean. They consist of a few minutes of screen time and a handful of shots; they are not sequences that define the narrative. This is not a slight towards the film’s budget or Refn’s eye for action choreography. Despite the film’s slender yet muscular form, the film is the antithesis of boring. Perhaps the best description of the film is a vague analysis of the pawn shop robbery. Gosling’s driver pulls up to the scene, and Standard and Blanche run inside. The camera remains on Gosling, his watch ticking away the promised five minutes before he will depart with or without his friends. We remain clueless as to the action taking place within the pawn shop. Instead, Refn leaves us to ponder the action taking place inside the driver. We ask ourselves what he will do once the five minutes have elapsed. Will he follow his established professional code and leave? Or will he stay? More importantly, what drives the driver? Breaking with cinematic convention, we never see what happens inside the pawn shop, but we do begin to see under the driver’s hood.