Much has been made of the influence of Michael Mann on Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, the exploitation riffing, twisted fairy tale, Drive. Alas Winding Refn’s film owes just as much to Anthony Mann as it does Michael, with the film’s crime and gangster dressings merely a sheath over a tale ripped straight from the old west.
The story of a film set stunt man who moonlights as a getaway driver, Drive relies upon the visceral and the tonal as opposed to thorough plotting and contrived narrative ideas. That Winding Refn manages to capture such a perfect balance between style and substance is only the first of many striking things about the film.
The character of ‘Driver’ is a complicated figure, equal parts cowboy and superhero. Visually we spend a great deal of time looking up at him. He’s framed like the powerful figure that his actions decree. On the face of it, if one looks at the film literally that is, ‘Driver’ is an honourable figure, especially so for a criminal. Truth be told, we learn very little of the character. Like the finest Eastwood lead, it’s explained that he mysteriously rolled in to the situation one day, and we see him roll out. No further background is given. Even his motives for the path he takes within the plot of the film are barely known. One might read it that driver is simply delusional. A post-superhero cinema infused walking commentary. Is he delusional? Did he deliberately sabotage the car of his love interest that day at the supermarket? Does he orchestrate his own heroic situation? At one point he even puts a mask on to exact justice, in a sequence that plays out like something from a monster movie, complete with lighthouse strobe effect. Aside from the fairy-tale-esque story of a man’s love for a woman, ultimate details are essentially non-existent. Not that the film suffers in any way as a result of this. It’s this ambiguity that carries the film.
Instead of approaching Drive from a traditional, omnipresent point-of-view, we are instead placed in the shadow of the film’s protagonist, and forced to view the crimes being committed from his perspective, only leaving his presence to sit upon the bonnet of his car. This lends a certain tension to the two robbery sequences in the film, one of which opens the film, in the movies 15-minute long wordless prologue. It also serves as a way of introducing the viewer to Winding Refn’s very particular world. Unlike his contemporaries in the realm of the crime drama, Winding Refn doesn’t meticulous plot and place the traditional robbery sequence. Instead he maintains the focus on ‘Driver’.
In Refn’s world it is sound that leads the story, with no better example than the opening robbery. The camera is placed within the car with ‘Driver’ at all times, with the pace of the chase being driven by the sound of a baseball game interweaved with that of a police radio. All the while, the noise of a helicopter gradually getting closer can be heard overhead. This dialogue-free prologue lasts 15-minutes, and is broken by a burst of electro-pop.
It’s also sound that marks each and every tonal shift in the film. Most noticeably is a deafening gunshot that marks the start of the films ultraviolent third act, but its evident elsewhere too. Winding Refn again echoes, pun intended, Michael Mann in this respect. Ear-piercingly realistic gunshots punctuate many of that filmmakers crime flicks, be it the highway gun fight of Heat, or the digitally captured harbour of Miami Vice. The dialogue free nature of the film dictates that the movie lends itself to lots of symbolism, which makes for an unreal, almost Lynch-ian feel to proceedings (one particular moment, in which ‘Driver’ sits statically with his back to a window looking out on to one of L.A’s famous multi-level roadways). Again this use of symbolism also recalls the Western genre.
The visual palette of the film is composed largely of a series of lingering, slowly paced sequences. Recalling latter day Melville, Winding Refn relies upon long takes that build tension. Much is made of the presence of mirrors, with reflections a recurring visual motif. Familiar top down perspective shots of the freeways of Los Angeles serve to remind of just how intimately connected the city of Los Angeles is with the automobile. An occasional use of slow motion forces the viewer to linger, in spite of his or her own comfort, and places them in the position of editor (see below). The aforementioned low shots add to the tense tone being built up throughout.
One can’t discuss the aesthetics of Drive without looking at the films violence. On-screen violence, when done well, is an important and inherently cinematic entity. Escalation is played to the fore with Drive. Following a slow build up, in which tension eeks its way through to the fore, an ultra violent third act kicks off with a bang. Quite literally. Winding Refn’s film provides a perfect portrayal of the psychology of violence. He understands perfectly how violence works on screen, following in the footsteps of the likes of Cronenberg and Scorsese as a filmmaker who knows how to gradually introduce such themes in to a work. It reminds most heavily of Paul Thomas Anderson’s approach with There Will Be Blood, albeit Refn’s film shifts much earlier than the epilogue title fulfillment of Anderson’s film. Alas, both films share an epiphany of sorts, and climax with a crescendo of violence that has tonally been teased from the off.
Crucially, and this applies to all great films that deal with violence, one must remember that while the camera is unflinching that doesn’t mean that the viewer is. Self- censorship, knowing your limits as a viewer, within the moment is a powerful and immersive phenomenon. Michael’s Haneke and Winterbottom did it with Funny Games and The Killer Inside Me respectively, and Refn does it here. It’s also reminiscent of the manner in which audiences had to adjust their viewing habits for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, in which the director forced the viewer in to making decisions on what they looked at and who they listened to as a result of the revolutionary deep focus and overlapping sound techniques that were pioneered on the film.
Drive is something of a throwback to the protagonist drawn neo-noir of the 1980’s. Films like Michael Mann’s Thief, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves and Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo defined the Los Angeles of the late-20th century, oozing class and dictum, style and atmosphere. Heavily inspired by European cinema, these films fused scant plot with existential overtones to great success. David Cronenberg’s Crash is also a notable, if not obvious touch stone too, as is his A History Of Violence, which, following a slow build up, sees a mysterious protagonist exact a bloody revenge upon those who have wronged him. And lets not forget Richard Rush’s long-forgotten The Stunt Man, a film that the L.A Times once deemed “as innovative as Citizen Kane”…
Ultimately, Drive is a work of orphic intensity, is aesthetically divine and of a singular vision that is somehow both compelling and abhorrent at once. Without descending too far in to the realms of wanton hyperbole, Winding Refn’s film quite simply one of 2011’s finest.