Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Can't Go On Thinkin' Nothing's Wrong: DRIVE

Like a meticulous Jean-Pierre Melville thriller filtered through the glowing unrequited romance in isolation of Wong Kar-Wai and the dark neon criminality of Michael Mann, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive builds its tension slowly by piling simple, stylish scenes upon each other. As you can probably tell by the variety of filmmakers I referenced just to begin to get at a description of the film’s style, Refn is primarily concerned with the look, the feel, and the mood of his film. It’s awash in striking lighting, soaking in a synthy score, marinated in an 80’s genre feel with some 90’s neo-noir baked in. It’s a hollow genre exercise, living on nothing but its trance-like sensation of danger around every corner. But what a sensation! It’s hollow, but exciting and welcome as well.

The film stars Ryan Gosling as a man who drives. He’s a stunt driver for the movies and a getaway driver for hire. Both jobs he procures through his boss (Bryan Cranston, made leaner and more dangerous by the tremendous Breaking Bad), a mechanic who owns a small garage. As the movie begins, we follow Gosling through the process of preparing for a robbery. On a disposable cell phone in a darkened room, he agrees to be parked outside a particular target at a certain time, giving his unseen clients a five-minute window. He arrives. He parks. To the steering wheel, he straps his watch, its ticking ratcheting up the tension and mingling with the sounds of a basketball game on the radio. Finally the clients, armed, wearing black masks, and carrying suspicious duffle bags, rush out and get in the car, fleeing ahead of an alarm. Then, Gosling drives.

After this brilliant, focused introduction to the world of Drive, we settle into a quiet rhythm that establishes with slow-motion lens flares, 80’s aping song choices, and ample silence and solitude the life of the driver. He has few attachments. His boss, though, has connections to a pair of goofily menacing low-level mobsters, a cheapo movie producer (a threatening Albert Brooks) and a pizzeria proprietor (a darkly funny Ron Perlman). The Driver, on the other hand, appears to live simply for the chance to drive. He talks with his boss in shy, boyish tones, and then switches into clipped, matter of fact speaking when he commands his clients, walking them through his rigid rules for helping them escape the law. It’s an empty life, but a simple one. He seems comfortable, never more so than when behind the wheel.

But before too long, there’s a complication. There always is in films of this sort. A comfortable criminal existence can never remain so. The complication in Drive patiently emerges and develops. I had managed to shield myself from the downpour of hype for the film that started in Cannes and continued in a trailer that reportedly gave away the bulk of the plot. I had no idea where this ride would take me and that’s a part of the reason that I found it so successful. (If you want to remain similarly shielded, go ahead and skip the next paragraph).

The Driver grows close to his neighbors, a young mother (a sadly underutilized Carey Mulligan) and her small son (nice, natural Kaden Leos). They spend time together. He helps her out, fixes her car and gives her rides to work. Then her husband (the terrific Oscar Isaac) comes back from prison. Rather than falling into the expected, with a jealous ex-con filled with anger towards this suspiciously helpful neighbor, the husband thanks the Driver for helping out the family during his absence. Later the man asks the Driver to assist him (and a glum beauty played by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) with a pawnshop heist, a job that will pay his mob-owed debt and protect his wife and son from certain danger. The Driver agrees to help. But all doesn’t go as planned. Complications pile on complications and, though brief blasts of chaos puncture the best-laid plans, the film’s style never loses its cool.

Characters are observed in action, or more often inaction, vivid embodiments of tightly coiled potential. By the time this exercise in cool and quiet style explodes into gobs of gory violence that are over before you even have time to fully register what you’re nearly retching at, the film has had an undeniable visceral impact. Refn uses his characters as a means to an end, to satisfying his stylistic goals. They’re spare and simple uncommunicative beings, genre types boiled down to their purest embodiments, characterized by the gaps and silences in the storytelling. Gosling’s driver cares for the girl next door and wishes for the safety of her child. He likes to drive – he’s a great driver – and thinks that he can help her by using his talents. But who is this nameless driver? Who is this woman? Who are these criminals? Refn doesn’t seem too terribly interested in answering those questions. (To be fair, the script by Hossein Amini, from a novel by James Sallis, doesn’t provide the answers either). Characters exist only to the extent that they facilitate the action and the mood. This is a film that grooves on its artful tension, its twisting dark plot, and in its focus on style as substance. I was captivated. It’s a sugar rush, a contact high, and an absorbing, disturbing experience.

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