Friday, September 16, 2011

Shadowing the Spotlight: Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" (2011)

...Refn makes it clear the Driver isn’t fit for the spotlight, nor does he want to be caught in it. Instead, he lurks in the shadows waiting for the scanning lights to vanish – a sign of his opportunity to assimilate with the rest of humanity. He is nothing if not a reluctant super hero decidedly unaware of his powers due to their quotidian function in his life.

by James Hansen

The opening scene of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (winner of Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival) provides a gut check for the stoic, passionately low key Driver (Ryan Gosling). With almost no dialogue, the Driver runs through an entire mission. Clenching his fist, he sits in his car. He waits patiently, listening to the slow crackle of his gloves, the gentle hum of his car, the reports of a police radio, and the excited voices calling the final quarter of a basketball radio broadcast. He negotiates the information gathered through this array of sounds, perfectly timing his escape from approaching squad cars and choppers with the outpouring of fans from the Staples Center.

The bright lights of downtown Los Angeles shoot around the screen, as do the flashing blues and reds of cop cars and the bright white beam of a helicopter’s spotlight. Despite these apparent dangers, the Driver’s world is understated, simple, and perhaps second rate – he waits on the end of a Clippers game, not the Lakers. He is in such control of his surroundings and the given situation, nothing comes as a surprise.

While the scene bristles with excitement, the Driver’s gaze is casual, if not practically bored. As the criminals shudder with fear in the back seat, the Driver remains defiantly neutral and unaffected by the perils of his situation. His knowledge of the darkness of the streets, as well as his day job as a Hollywood stunt man, grants him a sense of ease. He absorbs urban complexity, supposed danger, and potential failure and projects them as decidedly simple, non-threatening, and undoubted successes. With this early scene (not to mention the appropriately praised soundtrack which underlies the dated, otherworldly textures which permeate Drive’s swift running time), Refn makes it clear the Driver isn’t fit for the spotlight, nor does he want to be caught in it. Instead, he lurks in the shadows waiting for the scanning lights to vanish – a sign of his opportunity to assimilate with the rest of humanity. He is nothing if not a reluctant super hero decidedly unaware of his powers due to their quotidian function in his life.

As Drive continues, it becomes clear this is impossible. He isn’t a normal guy. He can’t escape his heroic destiny. It is just a matter of time before the spotlight catches up and shines on him. Refn confronts this notion through questions of family, allegiance, and protection. Although Driver lacks such personal qualities, he finds them through his interactions with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son. Their relationship is brief and dreamlike – they float around unexpected places in Los Angeles building a solemn, yet deep rapport through glances, sly smiles, and light touches. Refn refuses a clearly delineated romantic narrative – an element that will surely frustrate many viewers. The extreme brevity seems a hollow short cut, but it importantly mirrors the temporal nature of Driver and Irene’s relationship. They don’t have many moments together, but, when they do, it always means something. Refn understands a standard romantic narrative would never happen. Rather, like a flickering light, their “love” can only flash up for a split second before it disappears.

When Irene’s husband returns from prison, Driver sits idly by, even as the chances for a love connection are complicated. There are some brief moments of tension (benefited by the great performances), but Driver’s willingness to remain on the sidelines of the family indicate the stronger psychic willingness of his character to just be there – something Irene’s husband is unable to do. Driver doesn’t aggressively pursue Irene. Instead, he finds her husband in a difficult situation and tries to put his talents to use for them. This isn’t a competition for Irene, and Drive’s narrative seems wholly uninterested in this being deemed a love story. But if love means someone always being on your side, the Driver abides.

In the final act, the impossibility of the situation takes over. Drive, initially so restrained, is taken over by extreme violence, hostility, and heartless backstabbing. Driver can no longer maintain his blank slate status. Echoing the opening scene, as the situation crumbles around him, the Driver knows every move he has to make. This time, though, he steps into the sun and accepts his role as the hero (as the soundtrack makes completely obvious). Still, he can’t be hugged, accepted, or celebrated as such. Unable to be the heroic everyman, he must fade away, once again, into shadows and darkness.


Tony Dayoub said...


I simply didn't see any of the meaning you assigned to DRIVE. There was no heroism in the Driver, no love in the relationship between him and Irene, no identifiable technique in his driving beyond that which we see in any other average Hollywood film.

DRIVE felt as shallow and hollow to me as just about any of the movie's characters. I think that makes it easier for anyone to read just about any subtext in their actions.

Word recognition: guisdat

James Hansen said...

Thanks for the comment, Tony. And fair enough. Like I said at CV, I think we're engaging with this film totally differently, probably based on our relationship with the kind of films it's referencing. People launch the same criticisms at 80s De Palma and others (whom I think you like) so it's interesting to see the inverse here. I hardly think I'm making up subtext here (and naturally ambiguity leads to more associative readings) especially relating the Refn interview (which I read after a first draft of this review). The way the film reflects light, sound, and movement is pretty remarkable in my book. I see where you're coming from, but (obviously) I think there's more to it.

Sam Juliano said...

This film was anything but shallow and hollow, and you have captured it's overriding sensory qualities here James in this masterful piece. I saw much more David Lynch in this than I did Michael Mann (and Frederick Elmes and Angelo Badalamenti for that matter). In any case for me this is a five-star masterpiece, and one of the best films of the year, an existential, expressionistic mood piece with remarkable directiopn and pacing and a deep sense of urgency and inevitablity tinged with a deep melancholia.

The violence is intense and often stomach turning, but there’s a purpose here; I always argued that Mann was all style over substance, in this film style and substance are wed superlatively.

Gosling and Brooks are brilliant, and Mulligan is engaging, but the unsung hero of the piece is composer Cliff Martinez whose score is nothing less than electrifying, utilyzing some foreboding new age themes with terrific songs.

Utterly remarkable direction by Nicholas Winding Refn, who used slow motion to profound and mesmerizing effect throughout. I think he should teach a course on how to use this technique meaningfully.

I can see why the film may be absorbing and alienating at the same time, (Tony Dayoub falls in the latter category in a sense) but I found the former quality as the dominant one, and in the end am willing to accept the symbolic blood-letting. The lack of love and heroism can be applied to the film's existential underpinnings, and frankly I am happy that this goes so much further than any other Hollywood movie.

This is one instance where the spectacular reviews the film has received across the board are warranted and fitting.

Again, beautiful work here James.

James Hansen said...

Thanks so much for the comment, Sam. Glad you liked the film (and my piece) so much. (Not that I don't always take time with my pieces, but I really worked over this one). I look forward to seeing it again. As you say, Refn builds from the mood and sensory qualities to great effect. Masterful.

David H. Schleicher said...

Loved your "character study" take on the film. Based on peoples' comments here and at Wonders in the Dark - the film certainly has been divisive!

Sachin said...

Nice review James. Regarding the Driver's choice of basketball team, at first, I thought he was a Clippers fan but then I figured he might just be following the Clippers only for business not pleasure as he needed to know when the game was over so he could park his car. I thought a character like him could not love anything but as it so happens in films, such characters often fall for women who end up complicating their lives and dragging them into deep mess.

James Hansen said...

David- Thanks so much. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

Sachin- Yes, it certainly is a business decision (I imagine he has done this kind of thing before while waiting on the Lakers) but I think it's a smart/calculated move by Refn to underscore the Driver's below the radar/out of the spotlight status. His specific fandom is of no concern, but I think the Clippers (as some sort of idea) have an interesting function for the scene.