The laconic hero of Drive is not just a man without a name, the lonely fellow is a man without a decade. "The Driver" (Ryan Gosling) sports an anachronistic white satin jacket through much of Drive, which is announced in titles whose pink script is consciously reminiscent of those of Risky Business. Only The Driver's first getaway car, a late model Chevy Impala, ties him to the present . "The most popular car in California," announces Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the mechanic who sets up the young man with the souped-up getaway vehicle for the first job we see The Driver perform with icy precision.
The first action sequence during which Gosling's mysterious character is wheel man for two robbers gets Drive off to a bracing, promising start. Before the Impala starts roaring along the streets and ducking into underpasses of nighttime Los Angeles, before The Driver pulls on his taut, leather gloves and inserts a trademark toothpick into his mouth, the job is set up in rare burst of dialog from the protagonist: "...hundred thousand streets in this city, you don't need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Those five minutes, I'm yours. Minute either side, we're on our own." Those words spoken in a spartan room in which a map of Los Angeles is spread on the bed, constitute The Driver's business code. His terms are met during the film's first job, but just barely.
By the time the second robber jumps into the Impala, the police are on the way. An inevitable chase ensues. Everyone is on their game at this point, driver, actor and director alike. It's good, brisk, well-executed chase sequence, as The Driver eludes the police on the ground and in the air, by quickly darting behind a truck and later hiding beneath an elevated highway to conceal himself from a helicopter, the action informed by a police radio in The Driver's car. And at this point, director Nicolas Winding Refn seems to know what he's about. All the better that this crisp action take place in Los Angeles by night. There is a darkness to the L.A. Basin much more than a literal quality, a lack of sunlight. It often seems to speak to an existential vacuum, a loneliness that howls as ruthlessly as a Santa Anna wind. If the Lizard King got nothing else right, he pegged Los Angeles: it is a city of night. Drive's early scenes give us some sense of the loneliness of both person and place.
What's more than a little incongruous in this early action is Drive's soundtrack. The song we hear during the opening credits, "Nightcall," by French musician Kavinsky certainly sets the tone. It's one carried on consistently by a sampling of fairly obscure synth. pop and similar music composed for the film by Cliff Martinez. With the soundtrack, as with the titles and that satin jacket, Mr. Refn's taste betrays him and the story he's trying to tell. One can't help but wonder if the music is intended ironically at at times. However, interviews with the director reveal him to be anything but an ironic man. He is, admittedly, a child of the 1980's. Hence, the the titles appropriated from Risky Business, all the jarring synth. pop and that white jacket. In opening his 1980's time capsule, Refn retrieved a few tokens of the decade best left buried. We should perhaps be grateful that the Members Only jacket with its trademark passants does not make a cameo appearance.
There's plenty of synth-driven music from the early 1980's that could have better accompanied such a story, whether used ironically or not. Whither New Order (or even better, stretching back into the late-70's, their darker forerunner, Joy Division) or The Cure? Beyond those obvious choices, it was a decade rich with music that spoke of doomed love often delivered in a bouncing, deceptively melodic package. All of this might seem beyond the point, this dwelling on The Driver's silly jacket or the film's curious musical signposts, but it speaks to the director's inability to reconcile very contradictory elements of the story and production design. Refn cites influences as disparate as John Hughes to experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, the fairly tales of the Brothers Grimm to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name characters from his spaghetti westerns. All well and good, but you have to make those influences coalesce. This is where Drive fails.
That's a shame, because in Gosling, Refn has something of an Alain Delon for our time. All apologies to the redoubtable Mr. Delon, who still draws air. The French actor worked his way from criminal to cop through a few collaborations with Jean Pierre Melville, most notably and perhaps iconically in Le Samourai. The two actors share sharp features, blue eyes and the presence to communicate a character without saying a great deal. Mr. Gosling is certainly given little to work with in the way of dialog in Drive; apparently he and Refn whittled his utterances down to a minimal essence. And yet, both the innocence and coiled potential for violence come across credibly. Gosling manages this like few of his generation can. It's a shame he's not given a better, ahem...vehicle for his considerable talent.
|This sort of thing done right. Alain Delon in Le Samourai.|
|It's a man's world: Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks given not a lot to do in Drive.|
Drive fares better where Hossein Amini's script is given room to breathe and some of the the supporting cast are able to lend Drive much needed grit and weight. As is often the case, the forces of evil produce more interesting characters. The dark side here is led by two money men and gangsters, Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks). Brooks is a bit of a revelation as Bernie. The generally comedic actor and filmmaker has made minor digressions from his self-constructed neurotic type before, but nothing quite like this. Both Bernie and Nino are somewhat wearied, middle-aged gangsters and probably like to think themselves beyond the dirty work of their trade. But when The Driver agrees to help Irene's husband, only recently out of jail, rob a pawn shop to appease thugs who had protected him in prison, the job goes predictably wrong. The Driver and Blanche (the Hendricks character) barely escape after Irene's husband is gunned down. They have unwittingly stolen a million dollars that belongs to East Coast mafia. This is going to reflect badly on the West Coast boys unless they can reclaim the money and silence everyone involved. Bernie has to get hands and blades on. Murderously wielding an antique straight razor or sizable knife turns out to be a rich and heretofore untapped region of Albert Brooks' acting ability. Who knew?
Shannon's relationship with The Driver is an ambiguous mix of employer, father figure and pimp. The garage owner and would-be (the operative words in his loser's existence) NASCAR crew chief came by his limp when a past transaction with Nino did not end well. He convinces Bernie to front money to purchase a race car with which he expects The Driver to carry them all to glory, but the heist gone wrong destroys the plan and dooms him as well. The chattery Shannon is Drive's richest character. Cranston plays him with relish.
In both title and premise, Drive invites obvious comparisons to Walter Hill's 1978 film, The Driver, another story about a mysterious wheel man for hire, going about his business in Los Angeles by night. Drive actually compares favorably to The Driver. But then, The Driver is not a very good film (much as Walter Hill clearly knew his way around a car chase). Despite the substantial talents brought to bear, or squandered, as the case may be, Drive is kids' stuff.
One would do better to watch those Man With No Name Eastwood films directed by Sergio Leone, or any of the cooly elegant cops and robbers films of Jean Pierre Melville. Mr. Refn might do well to watch Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks (Hana-bi) from 1997. Kitano, a man of many talents, manages in Fireworks combine elements of a highly violent Yakuza film, a tender love story, deadpan humor and his own paintings into something vastly more coherent and original than Drive manages to accomplish. It may be partly a matter of taste. It's also a matter of having the rare talent to combine seemingly irreconcilable elements into something that works as a whole.
Even after being fairly gutted by Bernie during Drive's final showdown between the forces of good and evil, there's no stopping this violent emissary and protector of innocence. We see Bernie shove a sizable blade into The Driver's abdomen, but the shadow play on the pavement below shows the hero somehow prevailing yet again. He leaves the dirty money and the crumpled Bernie in the parking lot and drives off to some far horizon. Godspeed Driver. May you find peace, a better soundtrack and a very understanding dry cleaner.