Monday, November 14, 2011

Drive (2011)

New releases are rare at Noir of the Week, but it isn’t often that such a fully rendered yet unpretentious film noir hits theaters. Make no mistake: Drive is no period piece like L.A. Confidential or Chinatown; nor is it an homage to classic noir like Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (though it certainly winks and winks at that film); and it isn’t any Tarantino-esque retread of drive-in pulp. Drive is an exhilarating crime picture — one that marks the maturation of an important young director and one that will inevitably increase the wattage of Ryan Gosling’s nearly incandescent star. And although much of its power owes to the refreshing filmmaking Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising), who was named Best Director at Cannes, Drive is not an unconventional film, and it heartily embraces its ancestors. Perhaps it’s convenient at this moment to mention Quentin Tarantino once again, though only insofar as the experience of viewing Drive is like watching Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction for the first time. The subject matter may be familiar, but the director’s voice is so enthralling that while you are at once engrossed in the storytelling and performances, another part of you is excited at the myriad ways in which the movie breaks with Hollywood banality. And while Drive isn’t perfect, it is positively captivating. It manages to situate the central character types of forties film noir in modern Los Angeles, while synthesizing the peculiar austerity of William Friedkin and the gloss of Michael Mann. All of this is bound up in an operatically violent, visually striking, and even more intensely sounding movie, that in spite of its intentional stylishness manages to avoid wallowing in postmodern hogwash.

This is neither a heist movie nor a muscle car film. Those elements are part of the allure, meant to sell tickets, as is the curious appearance of Mad Men’s Christine Hendricks. (The trendy actress with the retro figure is in and out so fast — albeit spectacularly — that if you take a breath you’ll miss her.) It is a polarizing movie — some viewers expecting a testosterone fueled The Fast and the Furious style action piece left disappointed, while those familiar with Refn indie-style high art thought Drive too mainstream. A convoy of professional critics, with seemingly brief cinematic memories, either praised or panned the film as a paean to the seventies and eighties, missing what it truly is at heart: a classic film noir — one that proves the enduring power of the character archetypes and narrative conventions established well over a half-century ago. Though unlike other films that have tried to revitalize noir tropes, Drive does so quietly — it uses them, but isn’t about them. It shows that well-worn conventions don’t have to be stale; and like the best classic noirs, it employs visuals to reinforce the narrative. (One scene in particular — the elevator — took my breath away.) Drive succeeds in this all-important visual brand of storytelling when countless other modern attempts have fallen short. Perhaps it is a result of its total commitment to classic noir construction that it doesn’t feel compelled to self-referentially poke at the audience.

Particularly noteworthy is how the script successfully integrates numerous classic character types. Drive gives us a pair of urban gangsters much more rooted in the noir canon than the wise guys of Scorsese or Coppola — not corporate icemen or immigrant superheroes, but insecure sociopaths more in reminiscent of Richard Widmark than Al Pacino. Ron Perlman delivers his usual high quality work, but Albert Brooks is simply astonishing — be on the lookout for an off-casting Oscar nomination. Brooks demonstrates that De Niro-like ability to vacillate between genial and terrifying while maintaining an affable, unruffled exterior. We know Brooks’s screen persona so well that his initial impression feels a bit like a gag, but by the final reel we’re convinced he missed his calling. More than a decade after a brief appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 Out of Sight, Brooks finally gets the opportunity to really show what he can do with a distasteful character. Gangsters are like Kryptonite in most contemporary crime films — so one dimensional that their mere presence thrusts most movies irrevocably into cliché. Drive delves into the noir canon to give us a pair of neurotic, frightened crooks who feel both refreshing and real.

Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Malcolm in the Middle) is a scene-stealer as Shannon, a throwback to one of noir’s most beloved character types: The Loser. He owns the garage where the driver spends most of his days, serving as Gosling’s criminal pimp and ostensibly as his father figure. Cranston cheerfully limps in and out of scenes, always in a good mood but never firing on all cylinders — a sad, trusting soul lifted from the pages of Steinbeck. The pronounced hitch in his stride is a visible reminder of an unfortunate life, with luck so mythically bad that the Brooks character can’t seem to stop joking about it. To top off the irony, Shannon even sports a horseshoe tattoo under one ear. If Drive had actually been made during the late forties, Harry Morgan or Elisha Cook, Jr. would have played Cranston’s role —*his luck is that bad.

And then there’s the girl. This is where Drive takes convention and pulls a U-turn. Noir has always given us two kinds of women: the femme fatale or the sweetheart. Drive combines both into one girl: Carey Mulligan (An Education), whose form is all sweetheart, but who functions as a femme fatale. Mulligan’s Irene isn’t duplicitous — she’s so angelic that she belongs in a Teresa Wright picture — but her innocence is so overwhelming that it compels the driver makes the sort of reckless choices that are typically orchestrated by a femme fatale. He puts everything on the line to protect this girl and subsequently find some small measure of grace for himself, though in a classic, post-war noir his motivation would spring from lust, while here he seeks merely to save her. Nevertheless, what the driver sacrifices for a down-on-her-luck diner waitress draws a direct connection with the films of the past and, at the same time, puts a less misogynistic spin on typical crime film characterizations. It might also be fair to explore the similarities between Drive and the 1994 Luc Besson film Léon, at least in terms of redemption, innocence, and gender, though the latter film, as revered as it is, is more thoroughly rooted in stereotype and visual pizzazz than it is in the noir tradition.

Finally there’s Gosling, whose casting in a tough guy part such as this may seem questionable. In the real world, it would be difficult to believe such prettiness in a man possessed of the unusual skills, the toughness, and the latent ferocity of the unnamed (wink-wink, see Hill’s The Driver) character Gosling portrays here, yet the actor is credible and Refn embraces his physical beauty. The camera lingers in close-up after close-up, and because his character rarely speaks, Gosling uses his face to tell us everything we need to know. In him we discover an archetypical noir anti-hero: enigmatic, melancholy, alienated, and alone; yet also a man who lives by an abiding code. How he became like this is a mystery; whether he grew up on the streets, did time at Folsom, or a stretch in camouflage is unclear, but we learn early on that he can handle himself and doesn’t tumble easily. When he assures his potential “clients” that as long as they do their dirty work within a five-minute window he’ll stick with them “no matter what,” it is with sincerity. For him such things are simply a matter of honor. We also know that like other film noir protagonists (and as the title of the film suggests) the driver is moving irrevocably towards some hidden destiny — that the wayward strands of his Spartan, empty life are fated to tangle in some unknown but final way. The perceived control he exercises over his reality — metaphorically realized in the way he handles an automobile — is merely an illusion. The truth the audience comes to understand that remains hidden from our anonymous hero is that his prowess behind the wheel has little to do with skill and everything to do with art.

Go see Drive. It’s delightfully old and new.

Drive (2011) Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel Art Direction by Christopher Tandon Edited by Matthew Newman Released by FilmDistrict Running time: 100 minutes

Written by The Professor
His blog is "Where Danger Lives!"

1 comment:

  1. one of the few failings of Drive that must be commented on are the terrible "pop" songs!
    The Cliff Martinez soundtrack works very well though


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