by: Greg Sato
I hate the phrase “an exercise in style.” It just sounds like someone wasn’t watching very closely and blames the movie for not being what they wanted it to be. (“I thought this was supposed to be a car-chase movie…”) And it’s only flashy directors that get nailed for this. Austere deities like Kiarostami, Bresson, and Ozu are always gonna get a pass. In order to get any respect, it’s like you always have to settle for a lay-up.
So, I was glad to see Nicolas Windig Refn get some credit for Drive. By “some credit,” I mean the Best Director award at Cannes and generally good reviews, which is kinda weird for a genre film, but the genre probably explains why critics get away with that “exercise in style” shit.
Everyone’s noted that Drive’s indebted to The Driver, Bullitt, Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name,” and although they miss some rather obvious references to Taxi Driver and Terminator 2, it would be nice if they mentioned two rather important predecessors: Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn’s last two films. Drive falls right in the middle of those two. All three have protagonists who don’t go by their given names, they’re all bloody as shit, they have similar soundtracks, they’re carefully edited, they’re brilliantly framed, and they all have explosive colors.
Drive’s something different though. It doesn’t have the same grandiosity. It works within the boundaries of a genre. It’s relatively low-key but occasionally vomits blood. And it’s peopled by real people. Let me run through this real fast: Driver works in Shannon’s garage and is also a getaway driver. He falls in love with Irene. Irene’s married to Standard. They have a son, Benicio. Standard gets out of jail, owes men money, and has to rob a pawn shop. Driver helps him. They’ve stolen money from the East Coast mob that Nino, who works for Bernie, was gonna steal. Mob wants the money. Everyone’s scared. Deaths happen.
Normally, something like this wouldn’t much appeal to me, but the film’s so well-cast and the performances are so fine that the plot gets shoved to the side. J.R. Jones complained that Drive capitulated to the Hollywood necessity that the hero’s a nice guy. But nearly everyone in the movie’s given time to show their good side. Usually, you’d want Standard dead as soon as possible, but played by Oscar Isaac, whose voice blooms with regret, it’s hard to imagine what he did to get arrested in the first place. I even have a soft spot for Nino. He justifies his botched plan to Bernie in business terms, but he’s instantly humanized when he says how the East Coast ‘family’ humiliates him. “What fuckin ‘family?’ The family who still calls me a fuckin ‘kike?’ To my face! You know, I’m 59-years-old, Bernie. They still pinch my cheek like I’m some fuckin kid.” Ron Perlman (Nino) looks like Tom Waits with gigantism. He played Hellboy. You can imagine how hard it is for him to eat that shit.
But Drive isn’t really about words. And I think this is why it’s misread as an “exercise in style.” Refn’s images speak very loudly. In very simple ways, he establishes relationships pictorially. Driver and Bernie—Driver, low; Bernie, high—first shake hands across Shannon’s chest, like they have a hold on his heart. While Irene and Driver are first talking in Irene’s kitchen, Driver’s framed in a mirror behind Irene that holds a picture of Standard and Benicio, which serves as a little reminder that her budding crush is gonna cause some problems, not only by the picture’s presence but by its position between her in the foreground and Driver in the background. This gets even better during the party for Standard’s homecoming. Driver walks out of his apartment and sees Irene taking a breather in the hallway. In her shot, the door’s at the left and she’s on the right; in Driver’s, he’s at the far left. They’re as close as they can be without touching. Her door opens. Standard walks out with their son. They stand right between Driver and Irene. Set aside the throttled longing in the dialogue and just stick with what you see, and it’s still a gorgeous scene.
I should probably address the not-gorgeous scenes. The ones where people’s heads get smashed. Anthony Lane got a bit pissy because Refn didn’t concentrate on the victim’s face in one killing, devaluing the emotion of the murder. But that comes later. We get a good, long look at the victim and the killer in the subsequent few minutes, but for the moment, Refn concentrates on the blood. Blood is important. For David Cronenberg, it’s an existential issue, and I think for Refn it is too. It’s a terrifying counterpoint, seeing one’s insides out, in a film so tight-lipped. It emphasizes how high the stakes are. Do you really know what it would mean to lose one’s life? Well, Refn will blow up a few heads just to make sure. (At the same time, when talking about his films, Refn did say—and this is one of my favorite quotes from a director—“There’s a lot of extreme violence because I like extreme violence.”)
I think these are all good reasons for appreciating Drive, but these aren’t the reasons I love Drive. I could go through reams about the colors, the angular framing, the low angles, Albert Brooks, the amazing music, score and silences, Ryan Gosling’s voice, the similarities to No Country for Old Men, the implications of changing Carey Mulligan’s character from a Latina, or the curious paucity of point-of-view shots, but that still wouldn’t explain it. Really, it just comes down to skill: watching someone who has to do something difficult and watching them do that well. Despite all the flash, the film gives you enough space to think, to watch people come to their decisions—Driver, Irene, Bernie, Refn—and then weigh them.
Plus, I just really like driving.
Greg Sato is a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media and Cinema Studies program, and he works for the Department of Human Services and the Art Institute of Chicago.