"There’s a hundred thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. Do you understand? Good. And you won’t be able to reach me on this phone again.”
These are the first words the Driver says. After saying them, he does not speak again until he asks a girl in the elevator “What floor?” and notices they have the same stop. Then he refrains from speaking again until another day when he is in the girl’s apartment and asks where he should put down the groceries. In the meantime, he drives a getaway car for burglars, drives a stunt car for a movie, works on cars, goes to the grocery store, goes home to bed, all without speaking. Evidently he only speaks when there is absolutely no other way of being understood.
The Driver is an existential hero, defined not by what he says but by what he does. What he does is drive. When he drives, he and the car are one. It is not that he drives fast or that his car is cool. He is not defined by such trivialities as that. Instead, it is total control of whatever vehicle he is in, a symbiotic relationship of movement.
He is an archetype, a noirish Man With No Name, first cousin to Le Samourai, The American, and The Killer. And yet he is unlike them as well, for nearly all of his cousins are of the amoral assassin school, where they are perfectly willing to slaughter anyone they will get paid for killing--until, usually, love gets in the way. But the Driver is not a killer, not normally. It is only when his life, and the lives of those he loves are threatened that he reveals himself as deadly efficient with his hands as he is with a car. His murderous rage erupts out of him so forcefully that we suspect it was there all along, buried deep under preternatural calm. Perhaps it had been released before, perhaps this release was what necessitated his coming to LA in the first place, walking up to Shannon (his boss and only friend) off the street and asking for a job.
The Driver is locked into a pattern, a pattern that many have followed before him. He is a man of action and solitude, but he will fall in love with a woman, a woman he will idealize as beautiful and good. This love may feel redemptive to him at first, but it actually reveals his vulnerability for the first time, for if he cares about something that means he can be hurt. He will get involved in a crime that goes wrong, and bad men will come after him, and after the girl. He will kill them, but he knows it is not over yet. He knows that he will have to go to the top, he will have to take out the leader or he and the girl will never have peace. To kill the leader, he himself may have to die, but this is not certain. What is certain is that his relationship with the girl is finished--even if they both live through this, they are from two different worlds, and the violence inherent in the Driver's world cannot be overcome. He is separate at the beginning and he will be separate at the end, whether alive or dead.
This formula is a strong one, but it is a little disappointing. We have seen this before, many times. Could not this movie have some sort of wrinkle to surprise, something to change the formula, shake it up, let us see it in another light? But no. The movie may, from moment to moment, surprise us, but in the larger picture it is all predetermined, predictable to the last. There are also few major action scenes, and what there are, are brutally violent in such a suddenly horrific way that if the shots did not cut away so quickly the violence would be unwatchable.
The director, Nicholas Winding Refn, has been quietly making a name for himself over the past decade, mostly directing movies of crime and violence. His Pusher Trilogy is acclaimed, and Bronson gained quite a following a few years ago when it launched Tom Hardy’s career, while Valhalla Rising was more controversial, inspiring as much hatred as admiration. I have seen none of these films, but based on Drive alone, he is a remarkable stylist (though perhaps a derivative one) with a mastery over his camera and frame, revealing only what he wants us to see, never more.
The film opens with a cat-and-mouse car chase that is one of the finest scenes of its kind I have ever seen. The opening dialogue, the quietly thrilling and intense chase, and the credits rolled over shots of L.A. at night with Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” playing as the opening theme, are among the best beginnings in a film in years. It is a pity that the rest of the film is not quite as brilliant. It is not that the movie goes downhill, just that it ends up so predictable, and ultimately, so thin. The scenes between Ryan Gosling and Carey Milligan are sweet, and thrill with the possibility of romance, but everything is telegraphed through images and music--we never get a full sense of the dimensions of this relationship, and perhaps neither do we. Refn is intent on mythologizing his subjects, taking them down to archetypes and treating them as figures in an epic drama, but he also cuts out all the meat, leaving us with a rather thin stew of high style and surface beauty that ultimately has no real history or emotion to back it up.
The Driver is an enigma. This can make for great drama in movies, but unlike Charles Foster Kane or T.E. Lawrence, the Driver is not the type of enigma with lots of different pieces that are hard to fit together, but the type where almost nothing is known and we never find out more. I think Gosling’s performance is overall excellent: He knows exactly how to look and be cool, he underplays everything beautifully, and he manages to use his entire body in his performance, demonstrating an absolute economy of movement that is a true pleasure to watch. But he is never offered enough from the script to be more than an embodiment of cool. Oh, he breaks down a bit, and its clear there’s more going on under the surface, but this cannot be called a character study. At least not in the sense we usually mean, where we come to an understanding about a character through being privy to his emotions and actions. Instead, it is the physical study of the surface of a movie character: we get to watch him and enjoy watching him, but we never get under his skin. And since we never get under any other characters’ skins either, that leaves the film feeling rather cold. (I should perhaps note here that the whole cast is excellent, except for Ron Perlman, but they all play pulpy characters in a movie which wants to transcend pulp, so they can’t add the element of honest humanity the film so badly needs.) The second theme song of the movie repeatedly sings out “A real human name/And a real hero.” The Driver, though, is not the latter and lacks the former.
Refn is greatly indebted to Michael Mann, as well as Walter Hill, Wong Kar-Wai, Martin Scorsese, and the BMW short films starring Clive Owen as the identically (un)named Driver. (Really, that last one might be the most obvious influence here, but I didn’t think of it until just now and I haven’t seen anyone else mention it either. EDIT: The films are collectively called The Hire.) But the film never quite gives in to pastiche, like Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers might. It also never quite offers more than a few moments of genuine emotion. The artiness of its technique might actually serve it poorly in the end, because it even denies us the pleasure of satisfyingly pulpy climax, instead relying on clever, beautiful style that still only conveys the image of profound emotion without the heart. So the more I think about it, the more the film feels empty: It doesn’t want to be “just about movies” but it doesn’t want to give too much away so it ends up at a bit of a half-way point where it isn’t really “about” anything at all, just style. Admittedly, the style is pretty brilliant--there were a couple moments where I thought to myself, “This is pure cinema”--but the more I’ve lived with the film afterwards, the less of value seems to lie underneath that. The plot is thin and cliched, the characters are archetypes we only see the surface of, and the emotions are barely glimpsed before they’re gone. I still liked it, I just wish I could like it more. Refn has enormous talent. I look forward to what he makes next.
Rating: 7/10 stars.