Delusional Or Daredevil? Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive

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.

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  1. Wow!!! What an amazing piece of writing – haven’t seen the film yet, wasn’t wooed by the trailer but now keen to see it. Interesting that you have barely mentioned the cast or story so much as the much wider context and multiple layers of references – it’s the sign of a really intelligent film / director to create all those sparks of recognition in the viewer’s mind at the same time as presenting what sounds like their own very unique and personal vision. Will revisit this review after seeing the film, and see if we agree….

    • Thanks for the really kind words! Do let me know what you think of the film. I did actually try to crowbar a bit about the cast in at one point, but it just wasn’t working! It is a film full of great performances though, Gosling is great, Albert Brooks turns in a nice counter-performance to his role in Taxi Driver, and Carey Mulligan is fine as the love interest. There’s also some nice supporting turns from Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks.

  2. Very nice review, Adam. Had been looking forward to reading it. Think you’re spot on about the importance of sound.

    I’m not quite sure I agree on the psychology of violence part though. Whereas something like Taxi Driver was a rounded yet subtle contextual psychological profile of a damaged individual (Vietnam, politics, sexual inadequacy etc…) which led inexorably to an explosion of horrible, sustained violence, I don’t think there was ever enough to the character of Driver for the violence to be anything more than an impressive technical exercise – in fact I thought it was over-the-top and quite a lot of the audience laughed in the screening I saw. I think Kill List (which ultimately went too far with the violence in the end, for me) did a much better job of being genuinely shocking in one scene in particular, making a serious point about viewer expectations and playing brilliantly on the tension that had been building with all the Mike Leigh-esque/hand-held/jump-cut stuff of the first half-hour. (Plus I’ll never look at a kitchen table the same way)

    Ultimately I don’t think that Driver was compelling enough to WANT to know more about what drove him; it’s not a character study, and I don’t think it’s supposed to be.

    I’d like to devote some proper time to writing about it one day, but there’s one scene in particular in The Wire Season 4 which is probably the best example of filmed graphic violence i’ve ever seen, in terms of striking the perfect balance between serving the story and getting to grips with the psychology of violence.

    Cheers,
    Ash
    http://permanentplastichelmet.com

    • Thanks for the comment Ash, you do actually raise a number of things that I was aware of while writing the piece. Comparing anything to Taxi Driver is always ambitious, so I was keen to avoid doing so! I do think Drive slots in nicely alongside the somewhat “lesser” contemporaries of Scorsese’s film though, in terms of the flatter moral landscape.

      I really do look forward to your teased piece on violence. I actually have the opposite concerns with this weeks Warrior, so check out my upcoming review of that for my views on what happens when a filmmaker is less responsible in their depictions.

      Incidentally, I wrote about Taxi Driver recently –
      http://hopelies.com/2011/04/12/taxidriver/

      • Thanks. I’ll have a read of that on my lunch break!
        Also, I did something on Drive too – http://permanentplastichelmet.com/2011/09/20/drive/ – have a look if you get a mo, and let me know what you think.

        Best,
        A

        • I was hoping you’d link your review. I actually read it last night, and urge my readers to do the same!

          The Wenders point you make is really nice. I purposefully avoided the use of the term “Americana”, simply because I steeped my entire review of Blue Valentine in Americana-isms. Gosling certainly seems to be the face of twisted americana in 2011. A modern day Harry Dean Stanton perhaps?

          http://hopelies.com/2011/01/14/blue-valentine/

          The breadth of cinematic influences and similarities that people have picked up and attached to Winding Refn’s film is little short of mind-blowing. Between the two of us we must have noted 20!

  3. Always enjoyed Refn’s work. Fantastic that the lead actor picked him out for the task, it’ll be interesting to see what Refn does on the back of this. Meanwhile I’m hoping my local Odeon books Driver!

  4. Once again an excellent review!

    You more or less said everything I thought while I watched the movie and afterwards!
    Simply put it’s a very simple story, that is told very well. The whole thing is very stylish and ambiguous. I have read somewhere that the director viewed it as an origin Superhero story. But the movie leaves it up to the viewer to make up their mind. I have my own thoughts, the Driver doesn’t wear the jacket or mask for fun! Heh.

    Also, the soundtrack is great and I feel integral to the film. That “real human being” song is my new earworm!

    • I’ll have to track down the soundtrack after watching the film last night it really is the complete package; everything working in perfect harmony together; much like a classic car. It left me wanting more, which is a great sign.

  5. I didn’t want to read this review until I had seen the film for myself – really well done.

    For my own part, what struck me about Drive was how much the plot also owed to earlier exploitation movies which were being produced in the 1970s. A lot is being made about how the film connects in with Thief, and Leone, and To Live and Die in LA (which has been overlooked I feel when considering this film) but it has it also has its roots firmly placed in 70s exploitation. I am thinking of movies such as the Outside Man, or Sitting Target.

    It also has a lot of links to the movies being made in the 1980s by the Cannon Group and Golan/Globus – stripped down crime movies, with ultra-violence and heroes who speak through action, and not words. Not to mention the LA setting.

    One key moment in this film reminded me a lot, about a Charles Bronson movie from the 1980s, entitled Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. People who have seen both films will know what I am talking about here.

    There is a strong clue about this connection in the film itself – Albert Brooks basically plays a character that made these types of pictures. It made me laugh seeing him describe what he did in a previous life – as that was actually part of a recent article I wrote here on Hopelies about Direct to Video films. I enjoyed the joke about “European Films” in there as well.

    The use of violence is interesting. And I am actually surprised at how restrained it all was in retrospect. When reviews have been talking about the ultra-violence, it seemed pretty restrained for most of the time. Those moments where it was shown were used to illustrate a point about the characters.

    We see the Driver demonstrate how he can take a life. After that sequence, when he next does it, it is shot in the distance. The audience doesn’t need to witness it again. The film uses the violence to show that these are dangerous men, and once established, it happens again, we use our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

    What complements the film is a superb soundtrack. Is it just me or do most of the best modern films set in LA have electro/ synth soundtracks? Whatever the case may be, it just works. Again it is all about mood, and feeling.

    Refn is also building on his own films. It is hard not to see this film as a spiritual brother of the Pusher trilogy. Those movies also dealt with the lower end of the criminal underworld. The guys who had money, but would never rise any higher. One of the great moments in Drive is seeing a party taking place at a pizza shop. Ron Perlman is in a smart suit and cracking up over something. Next to him a pretty blond woman looks over with disdain. Anyone who has seen the Pusher films will recognise moments like that, where aspirations and reality collide.

    But where the Pusher films had a “day in the life” flavour, Drive goes much bigger and broader in its outlook. It is a film first and foremost about mood. About the light bouncing off of a car, the way the sun beats the pavement, and those moments which you want to last a lifetime.

    As to the character of the Driver – I don’t believe he existed until the day he came to the garage looking for a job. It is as if nature itself created him fully formed on that day. He isn’t a human being. He is a primal force. In fact in one scene there is zero difference between him and the killer Michael Meyers, from the Halloween films. His “face” in that scene I believe is a look at his soul. It is a blank canvas, expressionless. And that is terrifying. It is a moment from a horror film.

    The Driver is not designed for any other purpose. He can only express himself through his wheels. Beyond that he barely reacts to the world. Look at how little notice he gives to the state of his jacket throughout the second half of the film.

    Some have suggested that Driver is being a gentleman when he is trying to woo Irene, an extension of the superhero idea. I would suggest he simply doesn’t know what to do. He has never been in this situation. He is not designed to be in this situation. It would be like taking a car into a lake and expecting it to skin across the water. It cannot work.

    One of the best companion pieces for this film would in fact be Spielberg’s Duel. In that the bad guy is a lorry. It has a driver, but they are the same thing. You stop thinking of it as someone driving the truck, and just think of it as a single entity. That is what Driver is to his cars.

    At the end, I believe he comes to realise that, for as much as the car cannot move without him, he cannot move without the car. They are one and the same. Forever entwined.

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