Sunday, September 25, 2011

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.

17 comments:

Hokahey said...

FilmDr. - I liked a lot about Drive but the second half or third of it disappointed me too much.

I like it for a lot of the reasons you state here. I, too, was thinking Taxi Driver all the way through. There's a driver's-POV shot that focuses on Gosling's eyes shifting to the right to look behind him that is right out of Scorsese's film.

I try to explain in my post why I ultimately disliked this movie - but it has nothing to do with any of the questions you pose in note #1 above.

Jason Bellamy said...

... 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.

That is very nicely said!

And I like the possum reading of the getaway scene in particular.

Hokahey said...

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."

Man! Reading the above, which captures what I like about parts of the movie, I'm thinking that I really should have liked it more. I love stuff like that! But the gang-war-retaliation stuff - and the ending that you find trite - ruined it for me. Objectively, I can say I liked pieces of the movie, but not the movie as a whole.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, it's painterly and poetic and a film that can be reason be referred to as a tone poem. It's existential and it's uses violence symbolically. Love your third point exceedingly, but your entire essay captures what I have seen and regard in the film.

For me (and obviously for you with that fascinating CHILDREN OF MEN reference) it's one of the best films of 2011.

One of your great pieces, Monsieur Doctor.

Aziza said...

I do think of him as a lonely knight, and I thought Gosling's performance was great! The director was the surprise for me, I actually liked his style. You can check out my blog for more details, if you want!

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey,

I look forward to your post. I think that I tend to forgive other weaknesses in a movie if it has a beautiful look to it.

Thanks, Jason,

Also, the Chevy cars are part of the camouflage theme, since they are the most common cars of the region.

Speaking of blood red, there's a moment late in the movie when the masked Driver walks up to Nino's Pizzeria and looks through a hole in the door framed by a cross of red squares, thereby combining the red theme with a suggestion of the crucifixion. Does that turn Driver into some saintly figure of vengeance?

Thanks, Sam! I agree that Drive is, along with Rango and Hanna, one of the best films of the year (I still have yet to see The Tree of Life).

Thanks, Aziza,

Yes, I've had lots of mixed opinions about his work, but Drive is one of Gosling's best, along with Lars and the Real Girl. Blue Valentine struck me as decent but ultimately too pretentious. Gosling combines the good and evil sides of his persona much more seamlessly in Drive.

Hokahey said...

A movie hits viewers differently. In way of comparison, I just wanted to share that I talked to two of my former Film History students, 11th graders now, who both said they LOVED Drive. "What did you like about it?" I asked them. They said they liked the look of the film. They agreed that Perlman and Brooks's performances weren't great and that the mafia war thing was standard and sometimes silly (yeah, stab a guy in the eye with a fork, but you got a lot of cleaning up to do, or maybe the cops don't like that pizza joint; yeah, we all know from Pulp Fiction about clean-up artists), but that didn't detract from the movie for them.

FilmDr said...

"A movie hits viewers differently."

True. I'm looking forward to your review. For the most part, I liked the casting of Drive. I enjoyed the creativity involved in having Christina Hendricks wear frumpy modern clothes in dramatic contrast to her look in Mad Men. I liked the way Albert Brooks played against type, and Refn's willingness to take a risk with Brooks as the villain. The violence never bothered me particularly one way or another. It struck me as the natural equivalent to the movie's extreme myth-making of Gosling's Driver character. I think I mostly appreciated the way Refn and Gosling created a character who still retains some mystery and pizzazz amidst so many movies where people either get degraded or characterized as just plain ordinary (one reason why I generally prefer to not review comedies). Amidst movies typified by the gratuitous degrading extremity of, say, Human Centipede 2, Drive conveys an old-fashioned sense of glamour and constraint. How many scenes involving a couple having a glass of water ever seemed so epic as the one between Driver and Irene? Drive is effectively iconographic, and that seems increasingly rare.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr. - I'm not sure I'm going to write a piece on Drive. I wrote a long comment on Jason's blog, and a number of other comments, so I feel kind of done with it unless the spirit moves. That said, the spirit could move after I click PUBLISH YOUR COMMENT.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

Great assessment, as usual, Film Dr.

I, for one, loved Brooks' performance. Creepy and physically intimidating in a way that Perlman, oddly enough, didn't manage.

http://gatewaycinephiles.com/2011/09/26/drive/

The Caustic Ignostic said...

[Spoiler] Also: It seems as though few critics are picking up on the fairly sharp moral critique element in the film's final act. The film suggests that violence is inescapable when you pursue a criminal path. Even the "nice," ordered, segregated criminality of the Driver's getaway driving is shown to be a gateway to a nasty end. I see the final, hopeful moments of the film as death-fugue, not reality.

FilmDr said...

Hokahey,

I understand. It's one of the privileges of blogging to not write when you feel like it.

Thanks, Caustic Ignostic,

I just saw Ron Perlman as Conan the Barbarian's dad! Talk about an awkward last movie to remember.

Jon said...

So I saw the film last night. I get that the film surely has a glossy veneer of references, but I believe that's only on the surface. What Refn brings to the table is far deeper than homage as many critics have critized his lack of depth here. I like your approach to reviewing the film and you totally get that the film does not take itself too seriously. What Refn's done is take the Melville/Mann setup and add operatic levels of sensitive melodrama, replete with comic-book gore. I've watched a lot of Fassbinder and Sirk this year, and this film has loads of this sort of melodramatic pastiche. I think it's glorious. I thought this made the film terrifically original. I mean the dream pop, the father figure, night in shining armour stuff? This is way different than Melville or Mann. It's just my perspective but I don't think Gosling is at all a replica of McQueen or Delon as many have complained. He's far more sensitive and emotional than those guys were. I think this film is emo-noir and not like anything else.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Jon.

I like the term emo-noir, but Driver hides his emotions as much as reveals them. Your idea about the connections between Sirk's and Fassbinder's work and Drive is thought-provoking.

Anonymous said...

I liked Drive a lot, have seen it twice in theatres.
Very subtle, very slick, incredibly tense. I think its a movie people will still talk about in 20 years.
Incredibly well directed, all the actors are giving amazing performances. Very cool score, great writing and editing. Just a really great movie, I love it!!

Joel Bocko said...

Filmdr, I still haven't seen Drive - though I've had a screener in my possession for several months - but what I like about your notes, what whets my appetite so to speak, is that you approach the film from a formal perspective. I don't just mean that you discuss the style, I mean you foreground it - and for the first time, I can get a sense of why I might end up enjoying a movie that (due to the hype surrounding it since its release) I have been suspecting I would find overrated. The line Jason highlights is the key in shifting my mind from skepticism towards the story and the approach towards the characters to anticipation for the visual atmosphere, taken in on its own terms, LEADING rather than following the content.

When I do see it I'll return to share my thoughts. You've made me keener than I was, so thanks.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I largely agree.

Thanks, Joel. I find that I like Drive because of its formal control, its willingness to indulge in its obsessions, the visual patterns that it elaborates on, and the way it maintains a sense of mystery in the process. The film is very old-fashioned in its fetishism. It is in my top five films of the year. I hope that you enjoy it.