Thursday, September 15, 2011

Revved Up (Drive)


(Warning: Spoilers.)

Out of the many startling elements in Drive -- the new Nicolas Winding Refn action-thriller about to startle audiences everywhere -- the most astonishing may be the movie's utterly invested effort to turn its leading man into a star. There are no real movie stars anymore, we've been told, only blockbuster spectacles that sell themselves, so it's elating to watch what Ryan Gosling does in this picture through the filter of Refn's awestruck lens. Gosling's coiled, laconic, unnamed "Driver" has antecedents stretching back to Sergio Leone spaghetti landscapes and wending through the urban thoroughfares of Walter Hill and Michael Mann: it's a hilariously pared-down performance, the funniest interpretation of macho-bullshit mystique I've ever seen, and the perfect antidote to every arm-flapping, brow-furrowing Leonardo DiCaprio performance of the last ten years. It's an extravagant joke, a magnetic man of few words in an age where everyone can't stop talking, and both Gosling and his director are in on it. All the same, there's something mythic and magical about this performance, this movie too.

Pauline Kael once compared the acting styles of Anthony Quinn and Cary Grant thusly: If you asked Quinn if he knew how to dance, he'd immediately jump up and prance around until you were sorry you asked; if you asked Grant, he'd merely smile and playfully drum his fingers on the table. That's similar to the economy of movement that Gosling achieves here -- whether he's courting his next-door-neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) or threatening local mob heavies Nino and Bernie (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks) -- with nothing more than a toothpick for a prop. (Okay, once a hammer.) A slightly more socially adjusted Travis Bickle, Driver's anger is roused only after a heist -- in which he is in the getaway car behind the wheel -- goes horribly wrong, Irene's paroled husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) ends up dead, and the new widow and her young son Benicio are next on the hit list. The two sides of the main character, lover and killer, are never convincingly reconciled; yet Refn achieves this union visually in one breathtaking scene in an elevator, where Gosling tenderly plants one on Mulligan in one moment and kicks an assassin to death in the next. Kiss, Kiss, Stomp, Stomp: Kael might have appreciated the duality.

The split personality of the movie itself -- from sweet character study to shocking bloodbath -- is problematic in a larger sense, by turns absorbing and alienating. From the quietly gripping prologue where Driver shows his knowledge of L.A. geography, Refn makes it clear that he knows how to stage an action scene; later on, he makes it more than clear that he knows how to stage a killing scene, and while the tonal shift is deliberate (like his protagonist, Refn never loses control) I'm not convinced that straight-razors, heads ripped off by shotgun blasts, and forks to the eye are playing to his strengths. Far more effective is a murder framed at a distance from the ocean surf, as well as a knife fight between a pair of shadows cast on concrete. The violence will be one of the selling points of Drive, and while I wouldn't say it's staged by a filmmaker who takes it lightly, it does come uncomfortably close to Tarantino's worst instincts to lure yahoos into the theater to get off on something they don't fully comprehend.

What other moviegoers will appreciate (other than Newton Thomas Sigel's stunning cinematography, the most shimmeringly beautiful depiction of Los Angeles since the Mann trifecta of Thief, Heat, and Collateral) is the movie's expansive regard for a stable of wonderful character actors. Besides Gosling's star-power and Mulligan's aching vulnerability, there is a deft comic turn from Bryan Cranston as Driver's shambling gimp mechanic and a diabolical one from Albert Brooks about which I'll say no more. I also liked how Oscar Isaac's ex-con hubby is initially set up as a hotheaded rival of Driver's, only to be revealed as a decent guy genuinely trying to go straight. Drive is at its best in scenes like the one where Standard tells the story of how he and Irene met, and at its worst in its shameful waste of Christina Hendricks as a blue-jeansed moll named Blanche. Anyone who's seen Hendricks on Mad Men knows that she's game for anything, so it's disappointing that her role is miniscule (however memorable her exit).

This is, as you may have ascertained, a polarizing movie, and it will be interesting to see whether the commercial, inviting aspects of the film draw a larger audience than the arty, off-putting elements repel. I'm sensing enough of the ground shifting beneath my feet to predict that Drive is going to make a profound impact on movie culture, be argued over into perpetuity, and start a fad for scorpion jackets. (I can't wait for scholars to dissect the outlandish, unsettling sequence where Gosling stalks a bad guy like a 1980s slasher in a stunt man's facial prosthetic to Riz Ortolani's florid "Oh My Love.") I'm not without reservations myself, yet a film with this much affection for actors and cinematic lore is hard to resist. And I was won over by the ending, as ambiguous as the fate of Travis Bickle, with a wounded Driver back in his car, seemingly disinterested in seeking medical attention, or perhaps already dead, destined to cruise the streets for infinity, his own gleaming Valhalla.

9 comments:

Steven Santos said...

Just got back from it. I think you hit the nail on the head, as I was aware of how problematic it is and, yet, the film was alive in every frame. And, just in time, in the debate of chaos cinema as well as the often-arbitrarily applied "rules" of filmmaking discussed recently, this film illustrates my point of what happens when a filmmaker makes distinct artistic choices from the conception of shots through to the editing. Whether you agree with them or not, you can see a filmmaker in service of mood, emotion and story. And it is certainly a rebuke to those who say classical filmmaking style doesn't generate excitement.

Refreshing to see thought and consideration put into shots and trusting minimalist actors like Gosling (who is fantastic) and Mulligan to sit in close-ups for long periods of time. Also, a movie that gives us a simple plot and nearly non-existent exposition.

As far as the violence, I could see where you're coming from. However, I wonder if it is more jarring to see this level of violence in an American film, as it reminded me more of the more personal, nearly stomach-churning violence of, say, Park Chan-Wook or this year's "I Saw the Devil", which actually made me feel ill.

Perhaps, because the violence was so messy and bloody, I felt it more. That most of it came from Gosling's character without the film moralizing over how insane he may actually be, once again, seemed more of a tip to Japanese, Hong Kong and South Korean films where the "heroes" are often as nuts as the villains. That one lingering close-up of Gosling's blood-smeared face, as well as the casual way he walked around with blood on his jacket felt like a signal from the filmmaker this guy may have had a screw loose.

Craig said...

I thought the same thing about the "Chaos Cinema" debate and marveled at just how carefully Refn had thought his choices through. The movie is all of a piece: even the violence that I struggled with develops out a long, slow boil -- from the offscreen beating of a character to that character's later death to the chamber of horrors that unfolds in Driver's apartment. That's a major part of its impact, that nothing happens for about half the film's running time, yet you sense that something could at any moment.

I'm less bothered by the gore with some distance from it. (I was also admittedly distracted at the time by a cheap stunt performed by a person who attended with me, though it was somewhat amusing to watch her as the movie unfolded with her head in her hands and one foot pivoted toward the exit.) Really my only quibble remains with the treatment of the Christina Hendricks character, who looks poised to deliver a great wisecracking performance that never comes off. That said, "Drive" is feeling more and more like a classic to me, an astonishingly realized contemporary mythic fantasy. I'm getting the tingles that I always get when I've just seen one.

Michael C. said...

I really think that the violence is justified by the material. It makes the character of the Driver that much more dramatic knowing the level of horror he is capable of. When he is attempting to have a relationship with Mulligan and her son he knows what is bubbling under his own surface and why can't really be happy with them.

Sam Juliano said...

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 Craig, the film may be absorbing and alienating at the same time, but I found the former quality as the dominant one, and in the end am willing to accept the symbolic blood-letting.

You have penned a terrific review, and I fully agree this 'mythic' film expands the medium. And yes, Gosling has come into his own as a star.

Craig said...

Michael, I'm coming around to your view the more I think about it. As Steven mentioned, Refn gradually makes it apparent that Driver has a screw loose. I'm surprised I haven't read more comparisons to Travis Bickle in the reviews, since that seems to be the director's intent.

Sam, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Definitely some Lynch touches in there too, along with Scorsese, Mann, and the Asian cinema noted by Steven. I liked that they weren't just lazy references, but combined (as David Edelstein might say) into strange mutant hybrids. I mentioned at Michael's review that Refn's use of light in the elevator scene reminded me of Scorsese's "spotlighting" of Pfeiffer and Day-Lewis in the opera audience during "The Age of Innocence." And I still can't get over the "Oh My Love" sequence, during which I nearly laughed out loud at its sheer audacity but didn't want to break the spell.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm not sure I grasp the "extravagant joke," which either means I misunderstood the movie or your intent with that label. Are you suggesting that Gosling's character is supposed to expose macho bullshit ala Tyler Durden in Fight Club? Or something else?

I agree with you that the two sides of the character are never convincingly reconciled. To some respects, I'm not sure they convincingly suggest that there are indeed two sides. Although as you'll see in my review, which I just posted, after some thought I felt I unlocked a scene that provided Gosling's character with a little more depth/complexity in retrospect.

Mostly, I liked the film because, as Steven says, it's "alive in every frame."

Both Mulligan and Hendricks are given little to do, but that doesn't irritate me too much, as I've never subscribed to the idea that small parts require small actors -- even while I admit it creates a letdown.

As for your most recent comment, "Oh My Love" didn't work for me (the one musical accompaniment that didn't), and I expected it would send the theater into giggles, but I was surprised to find it didn't. Go figure.

Jason Bellamy said...

One more thing: The elevator scene is fantastic. As the kiss unfolded I thought, "You know, this really has no business working ..." But it does.

Craig said...

A joke in the sense that he doesn't espouse anything. He's a throwback to silent machismo in an era where everybody is telling everybody what they're feeling at every moment. A joke reinforced by surrounding him with motormouths in the movie (Brooks, Cranston).

Craig said...

Yeah, I loved the elevator scene. I've mentioned in other venues that what's interesting about the character for me is that he falls in love with a family, a quite different thing than merely an attraction to another person, and seeing him on that level changes the meaning of certain scenes like the one in the elevator. There, it's not so much a kiss of passion as a prolonged farewell to her world for what she's about to see him do. Truly magical.