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Film Review: Drive

Drive (2011; Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)

“What do you do?” “I drive.”

Ryan Gosling’s laconic, nameless driver replies thusly to a query about his profession made by his neighbour and percolating love interest Irene (Carey Mulligan). Of course, the simple directness of both question and answer intimates multiple meanings. The driver drives not merely to make a living behind the wheel (he’s proper day job is actually as a mechanic, though he moonlights as a film stunt driver as well as in less straight circles) nor does he cruise around simply for recreation but rather as an outlet for existential fulfillment. The driver does much more than merely drive in Drive, but the events of Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish, arresting L.A. neo-noir crime thriller proceed consequentially from the disruption of the internalized sense of self-possession and zen-like peace that driving a car grants him, as well as from perilous threats to the human connections that his lonely prowess behind the wheel has forged.

The Driver (let’s capitalize it, to avoid confusion though not preciousness) works in contemporary Los Angeles for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a car repair garage owner and agent for film stunt driving work with a limp and a pathetically eager personality. Shannon’s inborn patsy nature carries whispers of doom when he gets enmeshed with an old underworld contact, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), who finances a stock car (to be driven by the Driver) with a fellow mobster named Nino (Ron Perlman).

Meanwhile, the Driver’s flirtation with Irene and developing father-figure role to her son is transformed when her husband and the boy’s father, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac, his character so named mainly to facilitate a single joke but also to carry an automobile suggestion), returns home after being released from prison. Standard owed protection money on the inside and the debtors decide to motivate repayment with threats of violence towards him and his family.

To raise the funds, Standard proposes a pawn shop heist with the Driver as getaway driver. Drive opens with a slick demonstration of his considerable ability in this role, as he escapes from a nocturnal robbery with two accomplices. The Driver alternately burns rubber and cleverly conceals his vehicle from pursuing police cars and air support. Dialogue is minimal, especially once the engine revs up; Refn soundtracks the sequence with Cliff Martinez’s pulsating electronic score, exposition via the in-car police radio scanner, and audio play-by-play of a Los Angeles Clippers basketball game that doubles as commentary on the Driver’s skills (“He’s performing at the top of his game”, etc.; hardy har). The Clippers game is his safehouse, as he parks in the Staples Center garage and melts coolly into the crowd exiting the arena.

Anyway, the pawn shop heist goes not even a fraction as smoothly, necessitating a tremendous high-speed freeway pursuit and then an escalating series of cat-and-mouse acts of retributive and safety-seeking violence. Refn melds ruminative indie artfulness with 1980s flash and 1970s blood-spattered grit in a seamless fashion. Drive varies drastically in terms of pace but never of tone or aesthetic quality; it has incredible flow, shifting gears as effortlessly as its protagonist does.

That unnamed protagonist dominates the film, and how you feel about Drive ultimately hinges on how you feel about Ryan Gosling. Gosling’s performance is one of great composure, and Refn composes him and his narrative journey in a manner that suggests a dangerous calm in the midst of struggle and challenge. As an observer of Gosling’s acting method here, however, I remain frustratingly uncertain about it. Gosling’s thespianic approach is transparently intended to convey his character’s roiling emotions beneath an unflappable exterior, that much is clear. It is less clear whether or not he does convey that depth of sketched emotion or just sort of stands there looking cool. There are actors that can pull off that most difficult of tricks (Jennifer Lawrence is masterful at it already, and Ian McKellen speaks with technical awe at Martin Freeman’s abilities in this vein in the DVD features of The Hobbit). I simply cannot decide if Ryan Gosling is one of them or is simply reproducing the techniques of one such actor.

Practically speaking, this doesn’t matter much to the effect of Drive. Refn’s mastery of image, sound, plot, and reaction is such that the debatable emotive chops of his lead do not reduce his picture’s potency and verve. Indeed, Refn works around Gosling’s performance to visually establish the nugget of intended signification at the deep core of the Driver: when “at work” in the crime world, the Driver dons a satin jacket embroidered with a golden scorpion as a sort of armour but also as an emblem of identity to signal his enemies, like a battle standard out of the medieval world. The Driver is a scorpion himself, Refn unsubtly tells us with this touch; coiled and ready for the deadly strike.

The cool self-possession of the Driver makes him a formidable foe. Even if Drive gets a tad lost in a spiral of violent revenge along with its protagonist, it doesn’t ever lose its resonant existentialist undercurrent. It retains and gradually magnifies its hints about his solitary personal state and his quest for some measure of meaning behind the wheel of an automobile, that most American of vision quests. Driving, literally and figuratively, is what he does.

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