Moving towards an aggressive theater launch, Drive has featured a lot of dizzying, full throttle marketing ploys that suggest Hollywood escapist thrills. The poster is all grit and masculine energy, Rotten Tomatoes has posted an interview claiming that Drive is Ryan Gosling’s “superhero movie”, and the trailers and TV spots feature almost all the driving in the actual film. If you are expecting Gone in 60 seconds (2000) or The Fast and the Furious (2001), you are going to be depressed by the end of it. Even if you have heard rumors of the film’s misrepresentation, of its true art cinema inflections and the slow burn narrative, you still are not likely to know what to expect. In the aforementioned interview, Ryan Gosling claims that director Nicolas Winding Refn “fetishizes the frame. Everything in the frame has to physically turn him on, and if it doesn’t, he won’t shoot it.” I am sure Gosling meant the remark as compliment, and of course it is. Drive is a gorgeous film. It’s full of sun drenched, color infused, neon 80s nostalgic brilliance and actors who know how to shut up and look pretty. However, the film is all style and aesthetic violence, and it sadly does not know its own nature.
For some god unbeknownst reason, Drive wants to be taken seriously. It wants strained dialogue where the characters carefully choose each word and emotion before opening their mouths. It wants Ryan Gosling to passionately snog his obligatory love interest before curb stomping a man’s face into mushy oblivion in front of her. It wants to show a woman’s face explode from a shotgun blast and smoothly transition into Gosling’s character brooding wistfully for several minutes. The result is cartoonish and crass, and it really does not have to be. The distinction lies in the film’s inability to be self-aware, and to fully embrace the sadistic glee of the moment.
Refn could take a valuable lesson from fellow festival circuit forerunner Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010). In the film, Miike allows a dramatic arc to simmer quietly, as the violence of the film focuses the viewer’s attention. As the film draws to a close, all notions of dramatic closure are forgotten as the film appropriately devolves into the joyous chaos of death and destruction. Miike knew the primal effects of stylized violence and he embraced them and allowed them dominance. With Drive, Refn contends with his own sense of style, and quickly forgets that his film has become subordinate to aesthetic demands. He ends his film with his protagonist dissolving into shadow, absorbed into the mythic portent of a moonlit road.
An interesting study of the film can be found in a comparison of two significant driving sequences. The film opens with Ryan Gosling’s character, who remains unnamed, acting as a getaway driver for a robbery. Gosling waits in a Plain Jane Chevy Impala as the robbery goes down. He is taciturn and confident, and he listens to both a police scanner and the L.A. Clippers game on the radio, watching a clock. He has given the robbers a five minute window, and as time drags on Gosling’s body becomes tense, waiting to spring into action. The police scanner sparks to life as the robbers return to the car, and a delicate ballet of pursuit follows. Gosling lurks slowly through back streets, parking and shutting off his lights as a cop car passes. He speeds through bridge traffic and stop lights as the police spot him. When the police close in, the contrast of sound between the scanner and the game becomes jarring and acute. Gosling has turned the radio volume up, and as the game ends we see him drive into the Staples Center parking deck and easily escape his pursuers through the throng of basketball fans. Within the scene, Gosling’s character is shown to be extremely capable under pressure, and the disparate sound becomes a prophetic film device that retroactively illustrates how calculating and prepared he is.
In the next sequence, we see Gosling waiting in a car once more. This time around, he is driving the more conspicuous Mustang GT. The same five minute window has been given to the robbers, and as the minutes pass we have only the sound of a clock to occupy our attention. The police scanner is gone, for no real reason except to differentiate the chase scenes. After the robbery goes terribly wrong, our protagonist is pursued by an unmarked car through winding mountain roads. This time around, there is no delicate balance in the chase. In fact, Gosling barely lets off the accelerator during the entire scene. In a less subtle resolution, Gosling bests his unknown antagonist through sheer skill. The other car cannot maintain its dogged pursuit and ends up crashing off the side of the road.
The two scenes become extreme contrasts of each other. In fact, from the moment the graceful opening draws to a close, the film abandons nuance for the ease of visual delivery. When Gosling bonds with Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, we see them playing by a creek in a montage sequence. When the film wants to show Gosling falling in love with Irene, we see the two of them holding hands as they drive through the city at night, their silence drowning in vibrant Tech Pop. When Gosling’s robbery goes wrong, the violence of the chase and his super heroic driving abilities becomes overt, and we forget to grieve for Irene’s lost husband. If this sounds entertaining, that is because it is. What Drive does well, it does very well. However, every time the film halted to offer some attempt at poetic meaning, I could not help but feel I was watching a fraudulent piece of filmmaking. It is no small wonder that the studio had no clue how to market this film. The closest kindred film that I could think of would be No Country for Old Men (2007). However, with No Country, the violence meant something more than pure shock value. With Drive, the director is too concerned with the violence “turning him on.”
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.