Red noir: 8 notes on Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive starring Ryan Gosling
1) Why do people dislike Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive? Because they think it's pretentious? Because Ryan Gosling's Driver is both hero and villain? Because of Refn's chaste treatment of the movie's central romance? Do viewers dislike the violence, especially since Drive has a tendency to crush heads? Perhaps they dislike swooning over Ryan Gosling just before he gets covered in blood?
2) Drive is all about the satin scorpion jacket, the leather gloves, the 1973 Chevy Malibu, the elevator, the parking garage, the lulling '80s-style synth pop music, the cinematic myths of L.A. noir, and the color red. Refn makes movies based on his fetishes, and he's quite open about that. As he says, "I just make films based on what I like to see, on what arouses me, and not try to analyze them, because if I do, then I can destroy it."
3) While watching Drive, I kept thinking about Taxi Driver (1976). Both films are operatic, moody, characterized by doomed love, city streets, and seedy apartments. Both feature Albert Brooks.
4) I also liked all of the meta- aspects of Drive, the way it tends to artistically reflect back on cheesy Hollywood conventions just as Godard did in Breathless (1960). Driver's daytime job of stunt-driving for the movies prepares us for an "actual" chase scene further on. Another scene involving Gosling and Ron Perlman on the midnight surf strongly suggests the fight scene just before the nuclear climax of Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Also, Warren Beatty's momentary display of fear in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) came to mind when Standard (Oscar Isaac) hesitates in the car before robbing a pawn shop. As Bernie Rose, Albert Brooks ironically sums up this theme when he says, "I used to make movies. Sexy stuff. Some critic called them European. I thought they were shit."
5) As long as we don't consider the criminality of his getaway driving too closely, the Driver is a kind of knight, a lone figure of integrity in a landscape of morally compromised Los Angeles scum in the tradition of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in detective novels such as The Big Sleep (1939). At the beginning of The Big Sleep, Marlowe comes across "a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair." While Marlowe's heroic sacrifices can appear ludicrous in such a scummy context, he persists anyway, semi-bemused by the absurdity of his position. In Drive, we can see the family resemblance to Marlowe when Driver risks everything to help Irene (Carey Mulligan). As the garage-owning boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) says to Driver, "I know a lot of guys who mess around with married women, but you're the only one I know who robs a place to pay back the husband."
6) Drive is also all about masks and hiding. In his review, Jason Bellamy compared the Driver to a shark (and Refn admits that he intended the opening robbery scene to give us a feeling of being surrounded by sharks as the Driver seeks to evade the police in his silver Chevy Impala), but the Driver reminded me more of a possum, hiding his car behind a semi or underneath the spaghetti freeway as the police helicopter search light flashes around him. The Driver enjoys disappearing into a role, both in his job as a stunt driver for the movies, and in his disguise as a basketball fan walking out of the stadium. He is elusive, quiet, observant. As he did in Lars and the Real Girl, Gosling knows how to appear detached and yet present. The Driver's side job as a getaway driver has trained him in how to look inconsequential. He intrigues us in part because he knows how to blend in.
7) James Sallis' 2005 novel Drive has much in common with Albert Camus' The Stranger. Both writers strive to raise noir thriller conventions to the level of art. Driver shares with Camus' Meursault a visit to the rest home of his recently deceased mother. Both men are unassuming, disinclined to talk, fatalistic, existential in their acquiescence to circumstances.
8) Drive is the most painterly movie I've seen since Children of Men. By handpicking Refn to direct, Gosling delivers something that's increasingly rare in popular media: a non-ironic study in cool. His every gesture, article of clothing, and hesitant, quiet, restrained line-readings (reminiscent of Body Heat-era Mickey Rourke) work in the same way that Refn's glorious shot compositions and lighting arrangements do (much credit is due to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel). As Gosling redeems himself for his shallow ladies man in Crazy, Stupid, Love, Refn strives to enrapture and mesmerize through his hallucinatory imagery. One can criticize Drive's plot for its triteness (I found the end disappointingly conventional), but the movie is all about technique--the way a scene builds suspense, the way blood can be prepared for with emergency signs, a toolbox, the red highlights of a Denny's restaurant's mise-en-scene. Driver's manner, his flash of menace behind otherwise tired, inexpressive eyes matches the lull before the next blast of a shotgun, or the roar of a car's engine. Refn convincingly turns tired noir gestures into visual poetry.