Sunday, September 25, 2011

Behind the wheel

If I were a movie director, I don’t think I’d spend much time tracking lovingly across polished hoods, or indulging in the romance of the open road. I don’t even drive any more, and the only two kinds of car I can identify with certainty are the Mini and the Beetle. Still, you’d have to go out of your way not to have affection for some car-centric movies. My favourite, in my movie kindergarten years, used to be Walter Hill’s The Driver, although I haven’t revisited it for many years now. At the time I hadn’t seen much, if any, of the European cinema – Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai in particular - that influenced the film’s minimalism (the driver isn’t named; he has virtually no personal life, and so forth), but I responded to the polished abstraction, and in particular to Bruce Dern as the edge-of-crazy cop obsessed with catching the driver. I could still recite almost verbatim a monologue he has about reading the sports pages as a daily education in winners versus losers. Of course, I couldn’t do it anything like Dern could.

The Driver

The Driver seemed stylish at the time, but I expect it would just be a rusty old jalopy compared to Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film Drive. Not that there’s any explicit connection between the two, but the similarity in the titles and the protagonists – two virtuoso, nameless getaway drivers – makes Hill’s film an unavoidable reference point. But much as I adored The Driver, the comparison (again, subject to possible faulty recollection on my part) instantly works to the new film’s benefit. Hill’s work was terse and self-contained, requiring your submission to its mood and iconography. Drive is more extravagantly experimental, like a splashy art installation that seduces you into endlessly speculating and arguing about it afterwards. It works terrifically as a thriller too, but one of the Hollywood websites reported it scored surprisingly low scores in audience exit polls, compared to the enthusiasm of critics (it even won the best director prize at Cannes). I suppose it’s because for those who’d expect a movie called Drive to be a close cousin to, say, The Fast and the Furious, Refn’s film might seem like a pain in the behind; where a conventional movie might move seamlessly from A to B to C, Drive keeps on staring at A, and dreaming of B, before suddenly beating C into a bloody pulp and then landing on D.

I don’t mean to be facetious, for instance, in saying that the most suspenseful aspect of the film, by and large, comes in wondering whether the driver, played by Ryan Gosling, is going to say or do anything; time and again, it pushes the cliché of the strong, silent protagonist to the point of absurdity. But as it goes on, you realize Refn is having fun with the device: at one point he reveals Gosling’s impassivity as a staring game he’s playing with a kid, and in the closing moments it works to taunt us about whether the driver is even alive. In another scene, after the driver commits a shocking, out-of-nowhere act of violence in a strip joint, a group of girls who witnessed the scene just keep on sitting there, utterly motionless and unmoved. Taken literally, you’d have to assume they were drugged, but of course you can’t take it literally; it’s an aesthetic device, in part a joke, and also maybe some kind of evocation of the psychic toll of life lived on the fringes.

Silence and violence

The violence, in contrast, really is startling; for a while you assume the driver lives entirely by his wits, and then suddenly he’s threatening to beat up women and emotionlessly doing much worse to men (Refn doubles down on this line of provocation by casting Albert Brooks - you know, the lovable master of low-key comic observation – as the coldly brutal crime boss; it works a treat). Almost as startling are the extremely bold, distinctive songs on the soundtrack: in no sense “background music,” they reminded me of the 80’s heyday of Giorgio Moroder, when movies like American Gigolo and Cat People and Top Gun simply yielded on occasion to synthesized aural assault. Even a small detail like Drive’s opening credits, displayed on the screen in a pink cursive script, demands to be noticed; no doubt to be luxuriated in for its boldness, but perhaps at the same time to be quietly mocked. I mean, pink?

The bottom line, to repeat a phrase I used last week, is that Drive forges an unusually potent conversation with the viewer, constantly turning in on itself, insisting on its own artificiality – and when it does deliver genre requirements, almost knowingly overdoing it. The film doesn’t have much in the way of social relevance – anything resembling the “real” world is kept at a distance; the only clear view we get of a cop’s uniform is when the driver wears one early in the film for his daytime movie stunt-driving job. In that same scene, he perfectly executes a rollover of the car he’s driving, an early deconstruction of the usual car chase bread and butter that warns us against succumbing to such patented thrills thereafter. Actually, although Drive has a fair bit of driving, it’s often just that, the driver driving: I wouldn’t classify it as a great car chase movie in the way of Ronin or Bullitt, although Refn does enough of that stuff to show us he’s capable of it. It feels instead that he wanted his film to evoke a seducer who eschews the usual moves and erogenous zones.

Observing nothing

I should save some space to indicate the film’s plot, because it does indeed have one – the driver develops a sympathy for a young mother and son living in his building; her husband is released from jail and tries to move on, but he’s still in debt to some people who threaten to hurt his family unless he pulls off a job for them. The driver decides to help him out, but it goes horribly wrong, and he’s forced to become more involved. In addition to Gosling and Brooks, both excellent (although I think the articles calling Gosling the new Steve McQueen and suchlike are over-extrapolating, from the evidence available to date), the cast includes Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman. Actually, the actors I’ve mentioned, plus the boy who plays Mulligan’s kid, probably account for ninety-five per cent of the film’s dialogue between them; the movie doesn’t spend much time on diversions. Except that is, when the diversion becomes the journey, which is a characteristic of art.

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