There to Here and Back Again [On Refn’s Drive]

October 10th, 2011 by | Tags: , ,

Like everybody else, I’ve been thinking about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive since I saw it a while back. But first:


And a good song from the soundtrack:

(The Drive soundtrack’s really very good, by the way. Stretched out John Carpenter synths, real ’80s sort of sound.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this movie. I was actually thinking about it before falling asleep last night, and came up with a killer opening paragraph, but then I fell asleep. I had a couple of good email conversations with Morgan Jeske about it the day it came out, too. (Apologies to him if I accidentally steal any of his ideas.)

Drive is a movie that is aware that you watch movies. There’s a certain level of self-consciousness to a lot of modern films, sort of a Family Guy-esque drop in a reference and let you fill in the blank. Daniel Craig’s James Bond I think did this a few times to emphasize the difference between the sexy James Bond and the new thug, Die Hard 4 was better titled John McClane Versus Die Hard’s Bastard Children, Featuring Parkour Guy, Ninja Girl, and The Matrix Guy. It’s a wink at the audience, essentially, rather than any sort of effective storytelling. It’s a pat on the head, a congratulations for having seen a bunch of stupid movies. (Comics fans will know it as “continuity porn.”)

Drive comes off differently. It’s aware of the arc of your average action movie, it gets Michael Mann’s movies about dudes who are good at a thing, and it understands throwback aesthetics. And instead of rewarding the audience for knowing these things with a doggie biscuit and “Good boy!”, Refn and Amini use… I called it “negative space” in my emails to Morgan, and that’s really the best term I can come up for it. They simply don’t fully flesh out certain things, and we’re left with the responsibility of inferring the full shape.

It took me a while to realize that this is what they’re doing. It’s a very quiet movie, dialogue-wise, with an almost distractingly high number of knowing looks, tentative smiles, sidelong glances, and grins. There are precious few times where someone stands up and says, “I feel like this and so I am going to do that.” It works well, in context. It makes what could have been a cliché movie into something a little more ethereal. It’s to Drive‘s credit that it doesn’t quite feel like what it actually is.

The negative space thing is interesting. I had no trouble filling in any of the blanks in the movie, and it occurs to me that this is a sort of audience participation, too. I built part of this movie, maybe some fairly important parts, myself. That just strengthens my suspension of disbelief, since I’m not going to come up with something I can’t believe in, and strengthens the movie, too. It makes it more personal, more mine, than it would be if everything were clearly spelled out. For example, the romance part of the movie feels awkward and almost teenaged in demeanor. No one declares their love, and it isn’t even clear whether or not there’s a sexual aspect to their relationship. You assume so, sure, but was there really?

In Drive, Ryan Gosling’s character is nameless. It abstracts him as a person. He’s “The Driver.” What does he do? He drives. That isn’t the fullest explanation of who he is, but we’re left to interpret that for ourselves. We have to crystalize his abstraction into something we can believe in. For me, Gosling saying that he doesn’t carry a gun tripped something over in my head. He participates in sometimes violent crimes. He’d be held responsible in a court of law, but he divorces himself from the actual violence of the act. He won’t help you stick some place up and he won’t carry a gun. He’ll drive you from A to B, and that’s all you get. Is driving an adrenaline rush for him? It’s clearly something he’s good at, and he’s fairly clever, too. But he doesn’t want to carry a weapon or do the actual job. Does that keep him from overstepping his limits? “I don’t carry a gun” is a limit. It’s a rule, and we have rules because at some point someone did something that required the creation of the rule.

Bryan Cranston’s character mentions that Gosling just walked in off the street one day and asked for a gig. That suggests that he’s transient, and his lack of friends does, too. He’s not on the run from something, exactly, but he is escaping from something. Maybe he made a mistake or maybe he couldn’t do something any more.

So, working backwards: The Driver leaves some place (my first thought is Chicago, actually) and moves to LA. He left because, at some point, he carried a gun and something went sour and somebody died or worse. The Driver got off clean, but still had to vacate. He comes to LA, finds a small job, and falls back into an old habit, but is careful to keep the worst aspects of that habit at a distance. “I don’t carry a gun.” And then, when given sufficient reason, he falls back into those old habits, not with relish, but a sort of… grim determination. Like the end of The Big Fat Kill–“We gotta kill every last rat-bastard one of them. We gotta kill them because we need them dead.”

There isn’t pleasure in the act, not that I can see, so much as a responsibility. He’s good at what he does, whether that is driving or killing. The problem is that that opens up something inside him that’s genuinely ugly and terrible. He understands fear and theatrics, on at least a surface level. That fits with Refn’s idea that Drive is a superhero origin story. But Drive isn’t, not really. It’s the end of a thug’s life.

The Driver’s “sufficient reason” isn’t your traditional action movie love. He becomes attached to a neighbor, Carey Mulligan’s Irene, and her young son Benicio. He takes them on a tour of the LA river, and they have a brightly lit, fun, familial picnic at a beautiful, but polluted, locale. The picnic is shot like Heaven, and the implication is pretty clear. This is a place the Driver thinks is cool, and it is, but it’s also tainted. At the same time, this brief taste of Heaven is enough to show the Driver a way out of his life, something to grasp to pull himself out of his past.

I really don’t think that Irene and the Driver had a physical relationship. The Driver filled a need while her husband was locked up, whether it was security or a strong role model for Benicio. They both filled a need, really. Irene and Benicio represented Heaven for the Driver. There was so much unspoken in their relationship, and they were definitely into each other, but it seems very much like that they were in the budding stages of a relationship up to the point where Irene says “My husband’s coming back” while riding with the Driver somewhere. That line’s dropped in there with murderous finality, and may well be one of the longest sentences she’s uttered up to that point. It certainly felt like the one with the most impact.

There’s a scene late in the movie that directly juxtaposes the Driver’s past and present. He’s in an elevator going down (you don’t go down to Heaven, by the way) to the parking garage with Irene. A man in the elevator is clearly a shooter come to clean both of them up. Driver and Irene kiss in the elevator, completely with a bright, heavenly light, and then the Driver turns, slams the shooter against the elevator, and then kicks his head in. Thanatos and Eros right there, or maybe just Heaven and Hell. Irene steps out of the elevator and the doors close with the Driver in the bloody elevator. The doors literally closed on his future. He was always damned, and getting a taste of Heaven tipped him over just enough to ruin his equilibrium. He was closed off emotionally, and then Irene and Benicio opened him up, and then it was too late. You don’t get to pick and choose your emotions, and that bright red poison inside him came out at its first opportunity.

Later, the Driver tells the story of the scorpion and the frog. It feels really on the nose and eye-rolly, but after I thought about it some… it isn’t. The story doesn’t track. He didn’t ask for help. He was shanghaied into helping someone else. And then, after being betrayed, he set about the business of hurting people until things were put right. The only thing that applies is that scorpions hurt people. That’s their nature.

And that train of thought swung me back around to “I don’t carry a gun” (because if he had his tools, he would hurt people) and Irene and Benicio as escape hatch (because it is definitely both of them, not just Irene. He wants to go somewhere and be a family man) and the way that he stomped that guy out in the elevator. I don’t think that he would have harmed Irene and Benicio, but at some point, he would have hurt someone and fallen once again. The scorpion & frog speech wasn’t about what he was about to do to the people. It was about him. It was a confession. “This is what I do when you make me break my rules.”

It’s a well made movie, is what I’m saying. It encourages conjecture while still managing to be complete in and of itself. The conjecture is integral and superfluous at the same time. It knows you know how these shake out, so it can skip the exposition and backstory. That’s your half of the movie. Refn and Amini’s half informs and overrides yours, but the two halves make for a great whole.

It’s great. Visually, it works really well, too, but that’s another essay. I did want to share this image that Morgan sent over to me. It’s thumbnailed because there’s bare breasts and this is theoretically a worksafe site, but check this:

Look at the focal point of the frame. I like this level of attention paid to small details. The strippers in this scene almost act as the audience, watching with somehow rapt attention and blank faces, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the violence to come… yeah, I like this movie quite a bit. It hit the spot perfectly. I’m flying to Los Angeles today, and I basically just bought the Kindle version of Drive just because. It’s short, you know?

Catch the flick if you can.

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7 comments to “There to Here and Back Again [On Refn’s Drive]”

  1. I know this article is long enough, but you didn’t talk about my favorite scene, and a big thing I’m kinda working out; I’m not sure Irene represents a lover as much as a mother figure.

    When the driver has the money, and he goes back to Irene and says, in a most childlike fashion, “I thought you could take the money, and maybe I could come with you.” He’s completely sheepish and shy, until she slaps him and snaps him out of that fantasy.

    In the family dynamic of the movie, I feel like he’s more Benicio’s brother than dad, and it’s losing both his mother and father figures over the course of the last half of the film that makes him completely ruthless by the end.

  2. The director said he was trying to play up Ryan’s character as the “Man With No Name” and made connections with the “Knight of the past, who’d travel the countryside, helping people where he was needed”.

    Dunno how it syncs up with the book, but I didn’t get the feel of the ‘on the run/getting rid of the past’. The Man With No Name thing did make a lot of sense, but the idea of this guy traveling like Lancelot in the First Knight movie, and combined with his few lines, it works pretty well for a focus of a story.

  3. I saw this movie a week ago, and I totally agree–its a pretty great flick.

    How Refn and Gosling work to distance the Driver from the viewer is really impressive. Its really about half the movie before anything “exciting” happens, and by then we think that we’ve gotten a hold of who this guy is. The real turning point scene, I think, is in the diner, where he absolutely snaps on a guy, and tells him to shut the hell up, or he’ll kick his teeth in. For the first time in the film, the Driver is straight up terrifying. Its a hint of whats to come, and shows that despite what we’ve been tricked into believing, we really don’t know this guy. When he finally uncorks, he’s not surprised what he’s capable of, but we sure as hell are. As you say, this is something he’s kept bottled up and hidden behind his rules.

    Anyway I hope that all makes sense. I’m a huge fan of this blog, and I loved this movie, so I just felt obligated to throw my two cents in.

  4. I just wonder if you’ve ever seen The Hire by BMW films done during the last director’s strike in Hollywood. The style and character development really remind me of the Clive Owen character in these BMW shorts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hire#Hostage)

    Worth checking out on youtube if you really liked Driver. It is like a Driver prequel.

  5. I know this is nutty but I found a lot in common between Gosling’s character here and Viggo Mortenson’s character in A History of Violence…

    On the surface both appeared to be set in one role, craving a set style but due to circumstances rational and irrational, the true natures underneath the character’s veneer is exposed. Willingly or not. Interrupting their chances at being content or ‘happy’….

  6. “The story doesn’t track. He didn’t ask for help.”

    Are you thinking that the Driver is the Scorpion in the fable? I never saw it that way; to me he’s the Frog. Sure he’s wearing a jacket with a scorpion but it’s on his back.

    While the Driver is clearly someone hiding his past and capable of protecting himself, he still knowingly gets involved with criminals which eventually leads to a tragic ending for everyone involved. He’s able to survive and make it to the closing credits, but not before nearly everyone else dies and he’s cut off from Irene and Benicio. Whatever he wanted out of life (Irene, driving for movies, driving race cars) is lost to him.

  7. Just re-read this post, and it makes me want to see this film even more. Filming in “negative space” sounds like a) a great idea and b) a good song title, so I hope to get in a few good films along this idea before the trend turns sour, like they all seem to.

    But! Positive! – your description of the first part of the film being quiet, followed by the loud part, reminds me of both Alien and The Pixies. The first for having a quiet opening, building up its world, and then BAM! Chestburster! Ripley is So Cool! Mother is Creepy! Die you acid blood sunovabitch!

    The Pixies because of their “LOUDquietLOUD” song structure.

    You’ll have to excuse me, it’s been a sort of “connect the ideas” day for me. Earlier, I compared Hemingway to Occupational Therapy. It made sense at the time.