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February 2012


cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman

director: Nicolas Winding Refn

100 minutes (18) 2011
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Icon DVD Region 2

RATING: 10/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Drive poster

There's always been something special about Nicolas Winding Refn's films. Refn began his career with Pusher (1996), a blisteringly realistic low-budget crime drama set amid the kebab shops and drug dens of downtown Copenhagen. Though very much a genre piece, Pusher captures the attention thanks to its unconventional setting, flawless pacing and palpable humanity. After honing his craft on a pair of sequels and a few more genre outings, Refn began stretching his wings with the controversial Bronson (2008). At the time of its release, Bronson attracted a good deal of controversy because it was effectively a fictionalised biography of a man who was still serving time for the crimes depicted in the film. Given the biographical nature of its subject matter, Bronson might easily have lent itself to the same realistic treatment as Pusher.

However, rather than approaching Bronson from a standpoint of realism, Refn chose to break the fourth wall, stylise the action, and slide uncomfortably between the crime, horror, and comic genres to produce a film as strange as it is eye-catching. If Bronson marked the end of Refn's interest in cinematic realism, it also marked the birth of a desire to tell stories using visual means. Indeed, Refn followed Bronson with Valhalla Rising (2009), an intensely stylised exploration of human savagery that owes as much to Norse myth, and Conrad's Heart Of Darkness as it does to such art house classics as Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960), and Resnais' Last Year In Marienbad (1961). When I reviewed Valhalla Rising for this very website, I complained that while the film was undeniably beautiful, it completely failed to tell an interesting story.

Indeed, to this day, I am amazed that the man who produced a film as humane as Pusher could also produce a film as narratively sterile as Valhalla Rising. Thankfully, Refn's devotion to art house narrative conventions lasted only one film as his most recent film is easily his most humane and compelling to date. Based on a novel by James Sallis, Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive combines the intense visual beauty of art house film with the complex characterisation of literary fiction and the visceral thrills of Hollywood action cinema to produce what will undoubtedly come to be seen as one of the greatest films of all time.

The film begins with a sequence best described as what might have happened had Michael Mann been hired to direct The Transporter (2002). Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed character who earns a living by working as a mechanic, a stuntman and a wheelman for an array of criminal gangs. As a wheelman, the driver is as precise and emotionally detached as a machine; he operates by certain rules and if his clients abide by those rules then he will get them from A to B. If they do not abide by those rules then he will leave them behind without even looking back. Exquisitely shot and positively overflowing with tension, this opening sequence both sets the tone for the film as a whole and establishes the driver as a man who operates by a very simple set of rules.

The reason the driver operates by a very simple set of rules is because he is effectively a simpleton who possesses no desires or dreams of his own. As the driver's shambling employer and best friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) explains, he suddenly appeared out of nowhere and does whatever is asked of him without complaining or asking questions. The driver's lack of interior life is also reflected in his general demeanour as most questions asked of him result in little response beyond an impassive smile and an evasive answer. As blissful as it may seem, this state of perfect psychological simplicity is interrupted when the driver offers to help his next-door neighbour with her shopping.

Irene (Carey Mulligan) is initially quite guarded as she is aware that the driver is a single man, and she is a woman with both a jailed husband and a vulnerable son. However, as time passes and the driver shows no desire other than the desire to be helpful, she begins to thaw and imagine what it might be like to be with the driver. The impact of this relationship on the driver's mental state becomes evident when Irene's husband comes home. As music thuds through the wall and Irene's husband makes a heartfelt speech about his desire not to go back to prison, the driver sets aside the carburettor he is working on. For the first time in his life, he cannot focus on his job. Suddenly, he wants something more than an instruction to follow and a task to fulfil. The question of what it is that the driver wants is absolutely central to the film.

One interpretation of Drive is that the driver - much like Jason Statham's character in The Transporter - uses a set of rules to protect himself while acting outside the law. According to this interpretation, the driver falls in love with Irene and these feelings compel him to abandon his rules. Though undoubtedly compelling, I feel that this interpretation erroneously assumes that the driver begins the film as a normal human being who is capable of experiencing the full range of human emotions. While I agree that the driver ends the film as a real human being, I do not think he starts off as one. Drive is the story of how the wooden puppet cuts his strings and learns how to become a real boy.

There is a wonderful scene halfway through the film when the driver is sitting watching TV with Irene's little boy. The boy sits there smiling while the driver watches with a puzzled expression on his face. "How do you know that he's a bad guy?" he asks the child, and the child responds that we know this because the character is a shark. Still puzzled, the driver asks whether sharks are always bad. Ostensibly all about the bond between the driver and Irene's little boy, the scene actually depicts the process through which the driver acquires a moral sense. Prior to this scene, the driver had been quite content to do whatever was asked of him without complaint. After this scene, we see the driver making decisions for himself based upon what he (and not others) believes to be right.

The driver's slow progress from puppet to real boy is also exposed in the way he decides to help out Irene's husband when people try to strong-arm him into holding up a pawn shop. The driver clearly feels something for Irene but he is incapable of working out what that feeling might be and so he decides to step in and act in a supportive manner despite the fact that the husband is actually his competition. The oddness of the driver's decision to help is reflected in the incomprehension of both Irene and Shannon. As Shannon puts it, plenty of guys get involved with married women but only the driver risks his life in order to help out the husband. The fact that the driver is in a state of psychological transition is evident both from his extreme moral imbecility and from the fact that he gives the husband the same speech he gives at the beginning of the film. An emotionally mature person would know that his claims of dispassionate professionalism were nothing more than empty posturing but, at this point in the film, they are the only certainty the driver possesses. He is in unknown territory.

When the deal turns bad and the driver returns home to check on Irene, he quickly notices that the bad guys have sent someone to find out where he lives. In a moment of pure cinematic genius, the driver edges Irene into one corner of the lift and kisses her in slow motion. As the lift's lights blaze, the moment stretches on and on; a perfect kiss and a protective roll of the shoulders that places the body of the driver between Irene and the man who would kill her. As the light reflects off of the armour-like satin of the driver's jacket, time speeds up and the two men lunge at each other. The anger and hatred in the driver's eyes says it all: he is now a real person and he is killing to protect the woman he loves.

One of the reasons why Drive has been critically acclaimed (aside from its brilliant cinematography, perfect pacing, flawless acting and brilliant storytelling) is that most film critics are men, and Drive speaks to a set of concerns that are quintessentially male. Indeed, the story of the driver is ultimately the story of a man who is coaxed out of a state of arrested development by the love of a good woman. It is interesting to note that while Mulligan's performance as Irene is never less than compelling; her character possesses no character traits beyond her childlike vulnerability and her sense of maternal responsibility. These traits are an interesting choice as while they are in and of themselves fairly anodyne, they can have a transformative impact upon emotionally stunted men. For example, because Irene seems so vulnerable, the driver wants to step up and protect her and because Irene is a mother who is responsible for her child, the driver knows that she has no room in her life for a second needy man-child.

The idea that a female character might serve as a catalyst for the emotional development of a male character is hardly anything new. For example, Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire (1996) is all about a stunted and selfish man-child who realises that the woman in his life needs to be with an adult. This trope also makes frequent appearances in the male-dominated field of the hardboiled crime genre, as Mike Hodges' Croupier (1998) features a scene in which the unnamed male character claims that his girlfriend is his conscience. Similarly, Donald E. Westlake's classic novel The Hunter (1962) tells the story of a character that is all about getting his money back until he encounters a call-girl who rekindles his basic humanity.

One potential reaction to this trope is to decry its sexism. Indeed, these films are effectively reducing women to the status of catalysts, objects who exist purely in order to help the male characters to progress. While this is a perfectly valid reaction, I cannot help but be reminded of the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's criticisms of Conrad's Heart Of Darkness. According to Achebe, Conrad is a 'bloody racist' because he deprives his African characters of language and reduces them to the status of metaphorical extensions of the dark and dangerous jungles that destroy the white men that explore them. As Achebe himself puts it: "Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness."

In other words, Conrad wrote a book about Africa so that he could write a book about the white men who explore it. This, it seems to me, is a similar accusation to the one of sexism that might be levelled at Drive and all the other films about the transformative power of relationships. The problem with this argument is that while it is quite correct to say that the emphasis is placed neither on the women in these films nor on the Africans in Conrad's novelette, it is perverse to take this as a sign of sexism or racism when the wider context of both pieces angles markedly away from those types of sentiment.

For example, Conrad's Heart Of Darkness tells the story of a white man who goes mad in the jungle while the Africans quietly get on with their lives. In other words, it is the supposedly superior white man who loses his mind in the jungle and not the supposedly inferior Africans. Similarly, while it seems fair to observe that Irene is a simplistic character, her two character traits easily outdistance the subhuman imbecility of the white man at the centre of the film. Drive is the story of a character becoming human while the woman who prompts this transition remains noble, human and complete throughout. In fact, Drive could almost be read as the story of an innocent woman who becomes embroiled in a tug-of-love between the criminal she married and the handsome weirdo who lives next door.

Regardless of how you unpack its themes and narratives, Drive remains a brilliantly made film that works both as an existential think piece and as a popcorn-friendly action film. The character beats are flawless, the cinematography is achingly beautiful and the action is tense, stylish and visceral. Nicolas Winding Refn is not the first director to bring the literary sensibilities of the hardboiled crime genre onto the big screen but he is arguably the first to do it this well. Drive is a film that people will still be discussing 50 years from now. It really is that good.

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