Sunday, September 18, 2011
Man, Machine, And Melody
"Drive" is car-chase film with so much excessive style that the fact that there are very few car chases or scenes involving driving at all for that matter is excusable. From Nicolas Winding Refn, "Drive" is the first American film for the Danish director whose last films "Valhalla Rising" and "Bronson", were both examples of apex genre film making. This time around Ryan Gosling stars as the unnamed driver, part time mechanic and part time Hollywood stunt-man, and moonlighting as getaway driver, whose credo is that he is only involved in any crime as long as he is driving and not a second more. This kind of motto is only of interest, because the detachment Gosling shows to his fellow criminals is the same face he shows to everyone he interacts with. “I’m yours in that window and not a second after”. This changes when Gosling meets a neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her son, a neighborly ride after some car trouble leads, to a slowly and quietly blooming fondness between the two, until it’s revealed her husband is going to be released from prison in a week. This sets off a chain of events involving ex-Hollywood producers of “eighties action movies” turned mobsters, a suitcase full of cash, a heist gone wrong, etc. What makes “Drive” worth seeing? Why not just watch any of "The Transporter" or "The Fast And The Furious" franchises? “Drive” has style, like all of Refn’s films not style over substance, but style as substance. The music, the costumes (Gosling’s jacket a gaudier homage, among many, to Kenneth Anger’s “Lucifer Rising”), the Los Angeles setting, and the cars themselves take on real weight in the film. The music above all, makes the film though. According to Gosling the music “…is this dark disco sound: hyper-romantic dance music that has a menacing undertone.”, and Refn “If this movie was a piece of music it would be Kraftwerk because Driver is half man, half machine. Kraftwerk was about taking technology and make it melodic, so that was the right approach. We wanted electronic but not retro.”. Bubbly synths and soft female vocals, act as the perfect compliment to the driver’s sun bleached and neon streaked drives down L.A.s “100,000” streets. It’s important to remember though that Gosling’s character is not playing the songs that form the films soundtrack (it seems as if he prefers silence actually). The film itself produces the music, which though sounding great, doesn’t make emotional sense to the film until later on, when we finally get glimpses of the driver’s naivete. “I don’t eat I don’t sleep I do nothing but think of you”, croons “Desire” on the track “Under Your Spell”, as Gosling and the neighbor think each other. Like Tsai-Ming Liang’s musical-hybrids the pop songs subtitle what the love-lorn characters wish they could say to each other. By the time the credits role to a song called (with its title sung in refrain during the fade to black) “A Real Hero”, there is little doubt, that the sugary music is the very sound of the driver’s heartbeat beneath the roar of engines and tire screech. Man, machine, and melody. The Driver himself is a largely silent character, bashful and childlike to some “I thought you could take the money and go away, and that….I could uh come with you and…protect you?”, but prone to outbursts of violence, as if they were always lurking beneath the surface waiting to emerge. One scene finding him masked Michael Myers style on a beach, seems to confirm than for all his strong silent type charm, there is something not right quite right about him. Gosling deserves top marks for playing being able to play innocent puppy-dog and blood soaked terror with such command. All of the performances in “Drive” are good though, Ron Pearlman seems right at home as a mob boss, Bryan Cranston does well in his bit as the washed up mentor, but Christina Hendricks is under-used. Still it’s rather telling about the seriousness of “Drive” that it would rather use a bomb-shell like Hendricks to keep us on our toes, rather than introduce us to her bending over a motorcycle Michael Bay style or something equally exploitative. Though I wouldn't have minded a little exploitation here to be honest...alas... Albert Brooks is also surprising here as our hero’s main nemeses, an ex producer of “shitty 80’s action movies” of the type that “Drive” is signifying or as Refn says, " “Drive” also belongs to the genre of L.A. noir and to this niche genre, which is called neon noir and a lot of those films are from around 1979 to 1984.” Though the film did remind me of Los Angeles thriller’s like “To Live And Die In LA” (which also features an electronic pop soundtrack from Wang Chung) and “Vice Squad” where the mask/beach scene in “Drive” is as strange as the funeral fetish scene of the later. Never did the film feel derivative of anything it was compared too, especially the likes of “Bullit” and “Vanishing Point”. “Drive” is less like “Point Blank” and more like “The Limey”, “Point Blank’s” younger modern nephew wearing it's Uncle's vintage clothes.In “Drive” the driving is more of a symbol for Gosling’s character’s shark-like loneliness which is only alleviated when he has passengers, someone to share the ride with. The L.A. river scene recalling the out-of -idiom joy rides from "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid", and the warmth there in. The golden scorpion on the back of Gosling’s jacket cannot be ignored though, “you heard the story of the scorpion right? Well your friend didn’t make it across the river”. Just as it is not the scorpion’s nature to abide fellow travelers, so to is the driver fated to destroy anything that gets close to him, regardless of intentions. “Drive” may not be as bizarre or existential as something supposedly dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky might lead you to believe, but it’s a compelling thriller that will make you jump when a gun does go off, rather that turn automatic fire into white noise as more standard fare might this past summer has. I don’t think I’ve ever felt embarrassed for a hero the way I did when Gosling says “…I could protect you”, staring at his feet like a ten year old caught red-handed. That kind of vulnerability is rare in an action film, even rarer in a "super-hero" film as this has been referred to, by it's cast. I also don’t think there’s been a better closing scene/song match-up since “The Breakfast Club” or “Dogville”. Like so many wounded heroes in westerns riding off into the sunset, it’s easy to imagine Gosling’s driver, mouthing the words “real human being” to himself while his guts are literally spilling out all over the upholstery, until he becomes just another set of tail and headlights amongst 100,000 neon streets streaking their way across the blacktop into eternity.