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FIVE STAR FILMS #73: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn – 2011)

There is so much to love about Drive; Nicolas Winding Refn’s aesthetic feels as if it was specifically made to accompany Cliff Martinez’s synthetic beats; Ryan Gosling is flawless and the magnetic Albert Brooks’ voice claws at you. The story is deceptively simple; a Hollywood stunt driver (Gosling) moonlighting as a ‘wheelman’ discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong. Now, “anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what.”

1. Triple Bill in the making

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive belongs in a triple bill with Michael Mann’s Thief and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It’s similarities with Thief are in the character construct. Refn’s Driver is the Mannian professional. Mann’s continuing thesis of professional men would go perfectly with the antisocial, meticulous and hyper-skilled driver. He’s a minimalist, speaking with curt direction, reacting often wordlessly with flashes of fire like passing headlights in his intense eyes. You only have to revisit the layout of the opening scene of Drive, studied maps sprawled open, a rehearsed scripting, making the call from a one-time number and immediately being dropped into Shannon’s (Bryan Cranston) workshop where he outlines the supped up yet ‘invisible’ choice of vehicle to see that everything is orchestrated to the letter. The Driver gets infinitely more fascinating once he’s emotionally invested. It’s as if he’s hyper sensitive to love, felt through the dream like, sun drenched journey through the L.A. river with Carey Mulligan’s Irene. This serenity is underscored by College’s “A Real Hero.” The entire sequence echoes Bernard Hermann’s “A Reluctant Hero,” playing as Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) strange inner workings are reflected toward Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) in Taxi Driver.

2. Marty (Refn) and Bobby (Gosling)

Refn extracts a powerful performance from leading man Gosling. The Driver rarely speaks; you’re forced to rabidly read every nuanced expression, every flicker in his eyes in order to gain further insight into the character. Gosling’s measured and minimalistic manner is pitch-perfect. His strong silence alludes to an almost fundamental detachment from the norm. He feels as if he’s already running from something until he’s confronted and he begins the charge toward the underworld swarm.  It’s both cool and terrifying.

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3. And a real hero…

Drive (in the best possible way) feels like a music video – because the accompanying music amplifies everything that we see on screen. The Martinez score is as much of a character as anything else in the film. The signature being the use of Kavinsky’s (featuring Lovefoxxx) “Nightcall,” that compliments the warmth of Los Angeles’ sprawling jungle of street lights and the Driver’s ride coursing through the asphalt veins. Refn’s a director that relies on score to enhance and inform the unfolding action on screen, and especially because of the conflicted nature of the central protagonist the music is essential. During an interview with comedic historian Marc Maron on his WTF podcast, co-star Cranston spoke of how traditional the production felt during filming. Seeing the finished film it became clear that the addition of music and editorial manipulation was key to finding Drive as we know it.

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4. Elevators and Hammers

Beautiful, sensual and grotesque; the elevator scene is one of the most intentionally conflicting scenes that I think I’ve ever witnessed. The scene opens with the ominous third presence examining the Driver and Irene. The Driver’s reacts, exploring this antibody; in the folds of his jacket against his skin he sees a gun. In most tender and protective way the Driver caresses Irene into the corner of the elevator and you’re unwittingly dragged into the corner and into their embrace as they share a hypnotic kiss.  The confines of the space feel boundless in Refn’s gaze, as he manipulates the lighting and position of the camera to celebrate them consummating their feelings. Yet after this gorgeous escape, the Driver attacks the other passenger, knocking him into the same corner that had been the setting for an unfolding love. In an act that can only be described as defilement, he stomps the agent into mush and any chance that a relationship with Irene will eventuate.

I find that if you want to get someone’s attention, the best thing to do is to smash them in the hand with a hammer three times while they’re unawares. Gosling is just a transcendent glacial cool as he stalks down the hall into the glittery bowels of the strip club to pursue the source of the heavies that have been sent to dispatch him. Refn contrasts this high order violence with sex as the room is filled with buxom near naked women; their manipulation is passive, the Driver is a tenderiser to a meat sack minion.

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5. Driver: My hands are dirty

Bernie: So are mine.

The wonderful, the one and only, Brooks is more associated with comedy than esoteric drama but his villain Bernie Rose anchors this film. While most people have seen and loved his over the top villain work as Hank Scorpio in The Simpsons, Bernie is a subtly vicious and dangerous bastard. He’s old school and he’s the antithesis of our Driver. As the Driver is aloof and hits the poles of insularity and rage, Bernie is a constantly measured menace.  His gravelly and understated delivery has you hanging from every single word, and he wants to draws you in, in a range of his swift blade.

Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Writers: Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book)

Scored by: Cliff Martinez

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Pearlman and Albert Brooks

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