Tuesday, March 18, 2014
‘Drive’ is the best film Michael Mann never made. If Nicolas Winding Refn wasn’t watching ‘Thief’ on a loop at every stage of pre- and post-production – not to mention mainlining Tangerine Dream during the shoot – then I don’t know jack shit about cinema and I’ll draw down the shutters on this blog. ‘Drive’ is ‘Thief’ reimagined, from its clinically professional anti-hero betrayed by a yearning towards a domestic idyll, to its depiction of a precisely striated criminal hierarchy and the spiral of violence that represents the fallout of its protagonist’s careening journey from the periphery of said hierarchy to its viciously amoral centre.
But it’s more than mere copyism. ‘Drive’ is about as pure a cinematic love letter to a particular genre and a particular style of filmmaking as I’ve ever seen. Even the post-‘Jackie Brown’ movie movies of Tarantino are shot through with a knowing sense of post-modern irony even as they lovingly trawl the all-but-forgotten quarters of 70s exploitation cinema. ‘Drive’ never once tips a wink to its audience or takes a wily bow from the gallery. It lives its influences with the utmost passion and respect and sincerity.
It’s also the film I’ve been wanting Mann to make for a couple of decades now; or rather the style of filmmaking I’ve been wanting him to get back to. From the scrawled day-glo lettering of its opening credits, to its neon-drenched back-street cityscape, ‘Drive’ embodies the cool-as-fuck, unpretentious purity of Mann’s work before his gorgeous melding of perfectly lit visuals with the grittiness of film noir was bleached out by his wholesale embrace of digital cinematography. Certainly ‘Drive’ is a better nocturne – a far more aesthetically appealing black valentine to a violent city – than Mann’s own ‘Collateral’.*
In ‘Drive’, Ryan Gosling plays a character known only as The Driver or “Kid”, the latter appellation bestowed upon him by Shannon (Bryan Cranston) for whom he works, by day, as a movie stunt driver and a mechanic in Shannon’s autoshop. Shannon has dreams of managing The Driver on the professional racing circuit, and to this end solicits backing from mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). By night, The Driver is a getaway driver for hire to LA’s underclass, his terms and conditions ruthlessly simple: “You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own.”
Thus the stripped-down, automotive existence which defines The Driver. Adapted from the novel by James Sallis, Refn and scriptwriter Hossein Amini eradicated The Driver’s backstory, miring him in a moment-by-moment present. He emerges, variously, as enigmatic, romantic, brutal, heroic and just about anything else you care to project onto the existential canvas of Gosling’s minimalist performance.
What happens to complicate The Driver’s life, and to uncover the various facets of his persona, is a platonic romance with his elfin neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan). Her latino husband Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) is serving out the last weeks of a jail sentence. The Driver is drawn, protectively, towards Irene and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), but seems to harbor no antagonism towards Standard. When Standard is released from prison, he is initially wary of The Driver. When Standard is assaulted by goons in the pay of Cook (James Bibieri), a gangster to whom he owes $40,000, The Driver finds himself acting for Standard in his professional capacity when Cook coerces Standard into a pawn shop robbery to pay off the debt.
The job goes wrong from the beginning and The Driver, by now Irene’s protector in very real terms, is forced into an odyssey through LA’s underworld to track down his and Standard’s betrayer. No prizes for guessing how close to home the trail leads him.
‘Drive’ occupies a crime movie aesthetic of which ‘Thief’ is but its most obvious touchstone. The Driver’s name (or rather the job description by which he’s known) conjures the Walter Hill classic of the same title. His transition from focused professional to someone whose façade of calm masks a feverish working out of all possible angles establishes him as a continentally-separated next-of-kin to Alain Delon in Melville’s ‘Le Samourai’. The crunching but somehow morally-centered violence – notably scenes involving the non-woodwork-based application of a hammer and a repeatedly stomped-on head – could have issued from, say, Chan-wook Park’s psyche. The car chases, slow-burn tension and effortless moody cool evoke the glory days of American cinema (i.e. the 70s) when every other film seemed to be a masterpiece.
Do I consider ‘Drive’ a masterpiece? By a short margin, yes. I think it’s the fullest expression thus far of Refn’s ability to meld form, style and content. Granted, it doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve as stitch them into a onesie and fully engulf itself, but this works to its betterment where a lesser director would just emerge as a cheap plagiarist. Refn coalesces a cinephile’s lifetime love of genre tropes, moody anti-heroes and iconography that functions on an almost pornographic level, and creates something, underpinned as it is by the most demure romantic subplot that an 18-rated movie has ever crafted, that is flavoured with the immediacy of his own authorial signature.
*In the interests of accuracy, ‘Drive’ was shot on an Arri Alexa digital camera. Amazingly, given the vast budgetary difference between the two, ‘Drive’ avoids the “flat” cinematography of ‘Collateral’ and boasts such a rich palette and depth of focus that I honestly believed it had been shot on film.