About two thirds of the way through Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir film Drive the protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling, dons a creepy latex mask to go get even with some bad guys. As a viewer, you believe it is to keep his face hidden from the criminals until he has them where he wants them. That is of course until he runs the guys off the road and then proceeds to take care of them with the mask on, never revealing who he is. This is of course antithetical to most crime movies where the (anti) hero wants his/her enemies to see his/her face before they cash their ticket to the big adios. Drive, however, is not most crime movies.
The first time I watched Drive I didn’t know what to think of it. The movie looks fantastic and has a great soundtrack, but there are large swaths of the movie where not much is said. The film is peppered with great actors (Gosling, Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan, Ron Pearlman, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks) but it seemed so detached that it was hard to really get behind the characters. It rang as more style over substance to me, and a couple of deaths in the movie are almost Saw level gory. But a funny thing happened a few months after the movie came out. I read the novella by James Sallis that the movie is based on and gained a whole new appreciation for the film. Allow me to explain.
The story that the book and film tell are ostensibly the same, albeit with a few significant differences. In the book Driver (that is all he is known as in both) is a mystery, but not a complete one. We know about his past and how it motivates him. We know why he drives. We also know that even though he is a criminal that he does have a conscience. The book deals with existential themes throughout, particularly with Driver’s screenwriter friend, and it doesn’t ever try to excuse Driver’s actions. It just presents them as is and lets the reader decipher the moral implication for themselves.
The movie attempts to fill in the existential subtext of the book by a few changed story points (Bryan Cranston’s character; Driver’s relationship/romance with his neighbor) that say a lot about the character without scenes full of exposition. This ends up being in the movie’s favor upon multiple viewings. What seemed like lots of empty space and style over substance becomes knowing looks and mood setting.
The book echoes Richard Stark’s Parker novels. The dialogue is sparse, descriptions are quick and to the point, and the plot is secondary to the characters and mood. The story for both book and movie is simple: criminal takes a job, job goes wrong, people get hurt.
If the book is similar to the Parker novels, then the movie feels like it belongs in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s. It offers no easy answers and that is kind of the point. Crime is a bad thing but the people involved in the crimes don’t necessarily exist in a black and white, good vs. evil world. Everyone is a variable shade of gray.
The film that Drive reminds me of the most however, is William Friedken’s 1985 classic To Live and Die in L.A. Although Friedkin’s film is told from the police point of view, the film shares a similar visual style and thematic elements. The throw-back synth score of Drive doesn’t seem out of place when compared to Wang-Chung’s soundtrack for To Live and Die in L.A., and both films benefit from multiple viewings. If you end up searching out To Live and Die in L.A. watch it and think about any other cop movie that came around the same time and how very different it is from them. And then think about Drive and how different it is from all the other crime movies that came out in the years directly before and since. The films stand out for a reason. So if you haven’t watched them then get on it!
“And Drive Some More.”
I’ve watched Drive three times at this point and I have read the book (and it’s sequel, Driven) twice. I like the book(s) and movie more each time. I find nuances that I missed. I see plot points hinted at that I didn’t notice before.
I bring this up because my column this week was originally going to be devoted to another movie directed by Refn and starring Gosling, Only God Forgives, but after watching it I don’t think that I can fully comment on it for another viewing or two. Only God Forgives is stunning to look at. In this regard it is as good if not better than Drive, but in the characterization it seems to be trying the same less is more approach that Drive does so well and I’m not sure that it works. It is however worth your time and I am going to come back around to it at some point and give it another go.
Refn also directed Bronson, starring Tom Hardy as infamous British criminal Michael Gordon Peterson. Bronson is a very strange film that I would recommend to some people but not all. It features a fantastic performance by Hardy but kind of meanders elsewhere. Definitely interesting but certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.
Drive is honestly one of my favorite movies so far this decade, and I would not have known that upon first viewing. I guess that’s the moral of the story. Some movies, books, or albums need time to grow on a person. I always remember watching Dazed and Confused for the first time at 14 with my brother and wondering what was so funny about it. Flash forward just a few years and it was one of my favorites. I just didn’t get it when I was 14 because of lack of experience with the subject matter. Granted, I still have no experience with being a get-away driver so that is not the motivator behind my feelings for Drive, but hopefully you catch my drift at least. Oh yeah, and Gosling wears a nice scorpion jacket in the movie so there’s that. Scorpions are cool.