Updated: Dec 31, 2018
Just look at him, does he look like a good guy to you
Depending on who you talk to, Drive is either a slick, modern crime flick or a godawful slog they sat through one Saturday night because they'd seen the previews and every armchair-Ebert was raving about it. Drive is a polarizing film. There's not much a question about that. It's a shame that what makes it so successful is also what makes it so divisive and an even greater shame that most of this division could have been averted with savvy marketing rather than the clunky, formulaic spots that were put out. Sadly, Drive was subject to an increasingly popular trend in Hollywood, that of tipping the cinematic hand completely in the trailers in the efforts to put as many theoretical asses in many possible seats on opening weekend, reception be damned. Most recently this was the case with Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys. Tangled as the latter's plot was, eager movie fans were near completely able to piece together the features' narratives with little effort from overlong trailers that revealed every major set-piece. Nonetheless, this might not be so catastrophic in the events of blockbusters, where even from cinema's earliest days - when people were promised a 50ft monkey climbing the empire state and were happy to just that - this strategy proves wildly inappropriate for a film that relies so heavily on the subversion of action film tropes and gives further fuel to my conviction that most film execs are little more than the descendants of well-pruned carnival peddlers.
One of Drive's greatest strengths is its realism. For a film that's marketed as a summer blockbuster, this may well be misconstrued as the mundane. Indeed, in the realm of summer budgets - space battles and secret agents, worlds meant as escape from the mundane - much of what constitutes Drive is mundane. Forget competing with these films. Relatively speaking, Drive is still tying its laces while the pedigree sprinter from Marvel is out breaking another record. Just look at the locations where most of the film takes place: a pizzeria, a grocery store, a pawnshop, a garage, a small car apartment. Our so-called action hero plays out the opening chase in what we're told is the most popular car in CA, a Chevy Impala. Moreover, the post-production work on this film isn't spent rendering muzzle flashes or keying out wirework, it's on the little details. That first chase scene has every sound of that mundane Impala down to exquisite accuracy, which, being the most popular car in CA, most of the audience could probably recognize. Sure, to some degree the silence of the opening scene accentuates the tension, but it also drives home the reality of the situation. This is a regular guy driving a regular car around regular places. It's a lot less visually stimulating, especially in trailers when its competing for attention between periods of the Lakers game, but the choice grounds the plot in places that everyone would know. Not everyone, not even those who live in LA, have been to a premiere on Hollywood's walk, but it's a smart wager to say they've been to one of the thousands of pizzerias that seem to spring up anywhere dark, damp, and suburban. Further, the way the film's composed seems to suggest this latent closeness to reality. Refn uses a fleet of long takes and wide shots, camera takes closest resembling our own eyes, standing in as us in the scene. Moreover, his characters are soft spoken, if at all. It isn't the most engaging, but it's real, and for the most part the film is very grounded in this illusion.
90% of the time we're sitting around in our all-too-ordinary everyday existence, but the other 10% of the time, and more importantly, the way we get there - switching to high-octane moments as deafening and shockingly as that first bullet to Standard's neck at the pawn heist or the dense contact of hammer to skull at the climax of the infamous elevator beat down - are all the more significant to us. Of course, this entire dynamic is undermined by the way Drive was marketed. The trailers for Drive essentially extricate these 10% magical moments and mainline them in one concentrated short. Meanwhile, Gosling's already sparse lines are taken for face value and laid over as some kind of hero's mantra. The audience is pitched an action movie - and they eat it up. The delicate reality that Refn strove so hard to create, the feeling of being ripped up from a mundane and rural existence and tossed into this action, is nothing more than hollow when you've already seen the switch a hundred times before between beer commercials and it's so embedded into your unconscious that you can foresee the shots before they're even loaded. Moreover, the fact that you've already seen these scenes means that these blood-soaked revelations come not as shocks to the system, but of half-frustrated relief; the viewer checks another mental mark on the set-pieces they've come to expect as they settle back in and hope that this isn't all they've got up their sleeves.
It's a real shame that, for most viewers, myself included, the first viewing will be tainted by false expectations. Most will come into the film under the pretense of an action film, expecting straightforward plots and rugged car chases, only to find themselves bored at the beginning and confused at the end, when all the gentle laid pieces begin to connect. While you were busy looking for Chekov's Howitzer, the characters have gone on talking, living, and moved through without you. Based on your expectations, you're either tuned to the subtle character interactions and visual storytelling or you're anticipating an action movie that never comes. Moreover, this trend of duality runs far deeper than just the genre of Drive. What I'm implying is not just that one's preconceptions effect how the viewer perceives Drive, but what they see in it.
Do you understand?
Refn is pumping a ton of visual story telling into the film that some of us just aren't seeing because we're expecting, nigh waiting, for a movie that just isn't there. For example, early in the first act, which feels slow to some, there's a shot of Gosling as he packs his groceries. In one long shot we see Gosling walk up to his car, stare over at something, and set his groceries down, still looking over. The camera pans over to Mulligan's broken-down car, holds for a moment, and then we immediately cut to the three of them in the elevator. It's just two uneventful shots, but in this Refn tells a whole story. Something happens (a break down), our character contemplates doing something, and then he does it - cut to the next scene, move on, keep telling the story. And in a way, this little event is a microcosm of the whole movie. The driver's this kind of wooden façade who just drives, just fixes cars - whenever we see him in the first half, he's always working on an engine, like those machines are his best friend. But here, in this moment, he's given the chance to do something more, to help. In that cut back to the apartment, we're seeing a break in the driver's life. He does help that single mother - and it's fitting that it's a broken engine that catalyzes the change to begin with. Indeed, in the events that follow, this one movement, this take that seemed to linger too long on Gosling's blank expression, proves to be the moment where the rest of the film, the ensuing bloodshed, pours out of. The driver could just as well have kept driving, entering people's lives for no more than five minutes, cutting strictly at the starts and ends, but here he changes - the story becomes about the driver's choice to intervene.
In the very next scene, we're treated to more visual exposition when Gosling is waiting in the kitchen. There's a shot of Mulligan standing opposite with a mirror next to her. In the bottom corner of that mirror, there's an old photo of Standard, Mulligan, and their kid. Gosling's head is framed in the mirror, which creates a visual connection (on top of being an aesthetically pleasing way to shoot a conversation in cramped spaces). Refn is signaling in big neon writing: this is this character's role. He's the father in this picture, not Standard. Immediately, we get a better idea of Goslings position here.
Another early shot gives us further insight into Gosling's character. The Driver is preparing for a stunt scene in a movie, filling in for the big hero. We start on our hero's shoulder - him looking at himself - and as the camera pans over, we see what's behind the mirror, standing in behind the image - it's the Driver. As the camera continues shifting over, Gosling pulls down a plastic mask cast in the form of our hero. We move behind his shoulder and as he finishes adjusting the mask, the shot finishes its movement. The Driver now looks in at his image, the plastic recreation. Behind it - our real hero. And the question of who that real hero is is central to Drive's thematic core. The Driver's immersed in LA's silk black underbelly, rife with crime, theft, and immorality. The only way he gets by is to reduce his world to mechanistic causality. He follows strict, propositional rules. I don't go in, I don't talk - I drive. The question isn't even whether the Driver is good or bad, in this way it's much more akin to A Clockwork Orange in that, it's a question of whether he can make the intrinsically human decision to choose to be good or bad. At the start of the story, the Driver is wooden, robotic. This then is why there's it's so important, so meaningful, that the Driver stops, thinks, and decides in a parking lot of a grocery store, some mundane weekday afternoon. And it's this decision that escalates, snowballs to the blood and pain that the driver, the bicentennial man, Pinocchio, must give to be a real human, a hero in his own right.
This question is presented early on in the movie when Gosling sits down with Benicio. Benicio's watching some cartoons - something about sharks. Gosling asks, there's no good sharks?'' to which Benicio replies, just look at him, does he look like a good guy to you'' Here, Refn frames the central question of the movie. We're presented with two images of a man, visually distinguished by day and night. We've got the mundane mechanic, who occasionally does stunts for movies, but nothing too extreme. But by night, he's a getaway driver with a reputation that precedes him. The question is: which of these is the man and which is the image? We're stuck tumbling through mirrors and masks, never quite glimpsing the real person making the choices they desire. Indeed it would appear, like a shark prowling the streets - constantly swimming, constantly driving - involved in all manner of illicit activity, that, just look at him: does he look like a good guy to you? But again, consider the imagery: the intense signaling of duality through mirrors, how can we be certain? And in my favorite scene of the movie, we see this predator in full action. Mask donned, with the eyes rubbery and blank not unlike his aquatic stand-in, he chases down Perlman's car, runs it off the road. Evidently injured from the crash, he scrambles in sand. The lighthouse is giving occasional pulses, but otherwise, this is the darkest scene of the film; everything is framed in silhouettes or textured by ambient light. The Driver approaches slow. Perlman flounders in the waves. Here, in the moonlit wake, the Driver does what he does best - a shark's job.
But this isn't an assignment. No cash involved. This is one from the heart, the human pulling the strings. He dons the mask to make his choice. When the tide's gone out and the sand's brushed off, he'll pull the plastic off, return to his apartment - a neighbor of the boy and his mother next-door.
That said, I don't think this theme runs much more than skin deep - not in the traditional sense. It's not so much the extra dimension as it is the missing detail, the extra characterization, the impetus of plot, which fleshes out initially straightforward seeming action. Aside from the driver, none of the other characters really have an arc or role outside putting on theatrics for Gosling's journey (whose character barely even talks). Stemming partially from the film's succinct running time and tendency to spend more on long shots than long conversations, the characters fall into rote archetypes. Mulligan plays the damsel in distress. Brooks is the dangerously close to reality hollywood has-been. Perlman is borderline stereotype as the New York Jew, rattling off about his obnoxious, cheek-pinching grandmother. Hendricks is written off as eye candy. The characters are decidedly one note and cast well within each actor's traditional range. All this reeks of style over substance - the kind of thing that a prepubescent kid sitting in the basement would paste together from dad's noir on Betamax collection. It's all perfectly archetypal, which is the point.
A Real Hero
Brought up at the final confrontational dinner, Brooks reminds the Driver of the scorpion and the frog - a mythic fable, summarized as follows:
A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog then agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that no change can be made in the behavior of the fundamentally vicious (Wikipedia)
And fittingly enough, the Driver's iconic, glam 80s jacket is embroidered on back in big glittering thread with a scorpion. Here the Driver, the shark, the scorpion, and beast is divided in two, with his split partitioned by a river. In order to truly cross over, to be that real human on the other river bank, he reaches out, in that unassuming parking lot in a slow-paced long take, and asks the frog for help. This is the final image that Brooks gives our main character: that at the end of the day, after all the bloodshed, the dead husbands and friends, she will die. He will die, scorpion that he is. This then is the final face of confrontation, not of the mafia dealings, nor the evil they embody, but of change - that masks will always be as so, the men underneath never different for their actions.
These are deep, crunchy existential themes for you to mull over a cup of coffee and a handgun. And this runs directly contradictory to the film's objectively stock construction. The film is nonetheless affecting; you are, in some manner, entangled in the struggle. Rather than the dialectal presentation of theme typical of literature, the thick layering of character interactions that come with the territory, I think we're looking at experiential themes in which archetypes serve a narrative function on the subconscious level.
Note the importance (and subsequent acclaim garnered) of music in the film. Almost too overtly, each track is carefully placed, narrating inner emotions. During the party at Mulligan's apartment, we cut between her and Gosling as the music, both within the film's reality and our reality, repeats, You've got me under your spell, the last lines echoing on repeat. At the film's conclusion, our main character's proved his worth, evidently saving the day. Of course, Real Hero plays on while the trope sunset glares in foreground. It's subtext laid on like beer batter or barbecue sauce, immediately obvious to anyone who stops to hear the lyrics. But like most music, it works because it's slick and stylish, and it's got a hip beat you can bounce you're head too, but probably aren't paying much attention to. You look up the words at a glance and unconsciously associate their meaning to that current of a rhythm carrying the tune, avoiding the semantic conduit of words and cutting straight to the emotion of the events.
Drive plays off the modern myths of action movies and edm, juxtaposing the closed-door gang-dealings and high tempo car chases with the everyday realities of what is - in all likelihood - just another pizza place and just another Chevy Impala; places and possessions we've been to and owned. We can imagine the stories of these objects with intense clarity. More to this point, a story told through image, sound, and myth is one we naturally project ourselves onto as a function of its abstraction as well as its familiarity.
Herein lies another failure of the marketing - the abhorrent creation of an action movie that isn't there. It is this anticipation, the active duty of being on edge, blocking Drive's most effective trait - the subconscious wash of story - told through images, music, and archetypes, that'd we're just not receptive to when on the brink of frustration. It's a disservice to Drive and a misunderstanding of what makes film such a provocative medium; the business equivalent of advertising restaurants with desserts.
Drive's the type of film best enjoyed in it's proper sequence, created with the presumption that knowledge comes more from life than libraries - that we must in some sense experience as others to learn as them. And in this manner, Drive presents a cognitive frame to live, an idiosyncratic theme of being. It's the cinematic equivalent of a long trip with no one to talk to. We end the film with two final shots, Mulligan knocking, and Gosling driving - no sound save the heartbeat of synth. The scene's familiar to many, of a generic-lit dashboard and unpaved darkness, flickering streetlights incandescent on intervals. The scene cuts to black. She's still knocking, but we're not ready to answer. Not yet.