Sunday, 9 October 2011

“I drive...”

Drive: directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, written by Hossein Amini
Depending on my inclination I can sometimes turn the most obscure of issues into the foundation for some reviews that I write. Drive reminded me of a passing dilemma I faced last year with The Kids Are All Right - titling. I'm inclined to eschew, altogether, the obvious indication that the title functions as a mere stand in for the job of our unnamed protagonist, but with Amini and Refn’s intent focus on the character – making the film something of a indefinite character study – it would have just been simpler to call the film The Driver. The verb drive is a very active one, more than just the steering of a vehicle it suggests the controlling and directing of anything...or anyone. But, it’s drive in its noun form which intrigues me more, though – “a strong instinctual need or basic need”. Amini’s adaptation is a fundamentally simple one with characters who’s inclinations are only indicated never examined, and it’s that nagging question of the drive behind all their actions – teased at, but almost never fulfilled – which the film seems to depend on.
Brevity is the soul of wit. If you agree with that adage the driver of Refn’s neo-noir part character study, part romance, part heist film is the wittiest of them all. The car-repairman/ occasional driving stuntman is one of those silent, brooding type who in the opening scene explains how his side job as a getaway driver works. Immediately it’s got me wondering about his drive. Why does he moonlight as an accessory to crime? Does he need the money? Is he looking for a thrill? The film’s opening features a car-chase where the driver helps too thieves escape the police. His dexterity is palpable, his precision is noted, his detachment is curious. If we’re to take anything from Gosling’s portrayal of the protagonist in those first few minutes it’s that he’s suffering from a great disconnect to the world and even as he appreciates the skill he brings to driving, it doesn’t make him particularly excited. Or, maybe he’s just someone who keeps his emotions close to his chest.
It’s possible to Refn and Amini’s credit that they establish everything with so much concision, but if they say brevity is the soul of wit I say levity is the soul of it and that is the one thing lacking from the entire Drive experience which immediately reveals itself to me. Our driver begins a tentative... I'm wary of calling it an actual relationship...with his neighbour Irene, and her son Benicio. Their car is in the garage and he drives them home. On one of these drives he decides to show them his skill, we pan away from them and see them laugh (the only time in the film, I think) but we don't hear it, or know why. I'm curious, especially when  a few moments later we cut to their house and Irene tells him, “We had a really good time.” It’s an un-ironic utterance which becomes ironic just because of how earnest it’s supposed to be played. Gosling his still wearing his poker face, and Mulligan’s Irene is clearly distressed about something, whatever that is we’re not exactly sure of.

There’s a song that plays in the first half with a refrain “there’s something inside you, it’s hard to explain”. It’s sort of an indication of how precisely the music is used in the film. It’s both a reference to the film, as much as its protagonist. Everything unfolds, photographed glossily, beautifully and coldly. Even as Refn’s film is essentially a stand-in for its lead character, it’s not a personal experience because the driver isn’t really a personality. And, that’s not an insult. I think that Gosling is much too precise of an actor to portray the character with such stoicism for no reason. And, it returns me to the noun drive – he’s clearly got thoughts wandering in his head, and it’s a shame that Refn or Amini never allows us to. But, even though it looks like a character – and even though I call it that – it’s not really a character study. It’s a heist film for the film snobs. And, I'm a film snob so I say without the least bit of insult meant.

Standard, Irene’s husband who is released from jail about a third into the film, is to be involved in a small time heist which the driver participates in. We gather that he’s taking part because Irene and Benecio’s lives are being threatened, but in keeping with his frostiness he doesn’t show it – we’re left to discern. The heist goes wrong and in an overly precise unfolding of events it turns out that characters we’ve already met were at the root of it. It’s another indication of the over simplicity of the film. For all its ostensible novelty it depends on the most uncomplicated of arcs to its detriment, and to its benefit. The reason the characters come off seeming like archetypes is because the minimalist aims of the film never delves into their drive. Mulligan, for example, is arresting as the quiet Irene and it’s a character that’s difficult to get a proper grip on. Like everyone in the film, she’s carrying severe baggage which is only hinted at.
The film’s most significant attempt at humour (which isn’t quite humorous) is a tale of Irene meeting her husband Standard, and asking him “where’s the deluxe version”? It doesn’t work as humorous because there’s distinct sadness following all the characters around. It also doesn’t work as humorous for me, because in a wave of cynicism I was inclined to use it as the title of my review for the film, which suggests that I think Drive is a poor effort – which I don’t. I don’t think it’s as imaginative as it thinks it is, which isn’t really an issue. Imaginative does not necessarily mean better. Drive succeeds on the most visceral of level, which is what you’d expect from an action film. There’s a faint feeling of acrimony pervading afterwards because it teases us with interesting people who we never really get to know. So, I return to its title. Our protagonist drives, but the film unfolds too delicately for me to call it “driven”. Perhaps its irony is that although there’s something which acts as a drive for all our characters’ inclinations, we never really know what that is. Maybe they don’t either.



Dan O. said...

I feel a little bit guilty saying that Drive needed more driving. When the action comes it is tense and artfully done without shying away from the extreme violence, but that all starts to go away as soon as the characters start talking, or sighing and looking at each other. Nice review Andrew.

Nick Prigge said...

Great review, man. GREAT review.

Vancetastic said...

Glad to see that I'm not the only one who doesn't worship at the throne of Drive. More mistakes than strengths for me, but the strengths are indeed memorable. I was still thinking about the movie several days later.

Colin Biggs said...

It's high-grade popcorn, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

Candice Frederick said...

i definitely don't think this film is perfect (mulligan was horribly miscast and there were a few awkward moments throughout). but i liked the film otherwise. you bring up some good points

Ryan T. said...

I had zero expectations coming in despite knowing how many critics have PRAISED THE BEJEEZUS out of the film so in that sense I felt a bit of disconnect with them immediately after I saw the film. As time progress though, I find the film sticking in my head far longer than I thought it'd be and have grown to accept that I really did like it. With that said, I feel it's a film I may need to see a second time.

Excellent review regardless.

Castor said...

Personally, I absolutely loved it. I even found the Deluxe joke hilarious :) It's true that it's a generic story but when really well-crafted like it's the case here, it's still a very effective piece of filmmaking.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

dan i actually didn't have an issue with the lack of action. the two driving scenes were excellent, i just wish the characters did MORE than sigh and look pensive.

nick thank you. THANK YOU.

vance i don't exactly think of them as mistakes, though, because i have feeling that refn made the film he wanted to. i just wished he'd given it a bit more room to breathe instead of taking itself so seriously, at times.

colin well, it IS thoroughly enjoyable - so you're allowed.

candice i actually love carey here. a bit strange considering her pedigree, but i think she nails it. i love that exchange "i was going to call the cops." "i wish you would."

ryan it IS a fine film, and it's one that does stick in the head. i just sound curmudgeon like because i AM. a B is a very good grade for me.

castor especially agree with you on it being effective. it's one of the many good things about refn's direction. decisive and effective.

Vancetastic said...

And if we're talking (in a different thread) about Agora connections, did you notice that the actor who played Standard Gabriel -- Oscar Isaac -- was also in Agora as Orestes? That's a guy with some range. Great work in both films. Sorry to those who love the film, but I actually found him to be one of the only characters displaying normal human emotions in Drive. (There, I said it!)