To those who long for the days of Bogart and Eastwood (the squinting-into-the-Spanish-sun, cigar-chomping Eastwood, not the travesty that he is today), look no further than Drive; your hero has returned. With local box offices full of ridiculous-looking action/thriller movies (yes, you, Killer Elite and Abduction), Drive is without a doubt the fast-paced, graphically violent, sexy-man-starring film to drop $11.00 on this weekend. Ryan Gosling and his undeniable stare will make you want to be a better person. Or make you want to kill a lot of people. Or maybe some confusing combination of the two. Either way, this movie will get to you.
Drive, directed by Nicolas Refn and based on the book by James Sallis, takes place in Los Angeles and stars the sexpot that is Gosling as a stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night. The Driver (Gosling’s character is never given a name) seems to speak only in monosyllables, if at all. From the beginning, the movie makes it clear that this is no Fast and the Furious (one, two, three, four or five). He drives a silver Chevy Impala to the film’s first robbery because, as we are told, it is the most common car in Southern California and, therefore, near invisible. This flare for the flare-less is, however, somewhat thwarted when one of the robbers takes too long and the police are able to spot the car. Conditioned by the pacing of most action flicks, I braced myself for the inevitable, epic car chase: cop cars flying everywhere, hero spouting witty insults, swear words, or smirking at the very least. But that moment never came. When spotted, the Driver parks behind a truck, waits for the police to pass, then drives very calmly and legally onto the freeway. A police helicopter then picks up the Impala, but he parks and hides yet again. The helicopter is called away and the Driver emerges, only to be discovered at a stoplight. A chase seems inevitable at this point, but the audience’s expectations are disrupted for a third time. He briefly accelerates and performs a bit of fancy driving, but soon decelerates and parks again, this time in a stadium garage blending in with a crowd of baseball fans.
This theme of subtle brilliance trumping flashy showmanship resonates throughout the film. Nino, the main “bad guy,” gives a short speech about the importance of polish and sex appeal, expressing the opinion that if something is worth anything then everyone should notice it. Drive positions itself in direct confrontation with this belief. Fast talk, strong words, and ostentation fall beneath the relentless power of the Driver’s restrained brilliance and ultimate brutality.
For all of its gestures towards understated action, traditional action film fans need not fear; there are enough high intensity car chases, face stomps, bloodlettings, and boobs to keep you happy. These more expected elements, however, feel peripheral. The violence begins and refuses to stop, but the real action seems to lurk just beneath the Driver’s inscrutable expression and haunted eyes, forever foreclosed to the viewer who never learns his past or even his name. Where tender moments and glances between the Driver, Irene (his neighbor and love interest, played by Carey Mulligan), and Irene’s son are slowed down and captured with compassion and understanding, the killings happen quickly and brutally. The camera becomes disinterested in moments of bloodshed, often focusing on the waves or the shadows rather than the violence itself.
Though hailed as a neo-noir, Drive seems to have more in common with Sergio Leone’s “man with no name” trilogy. These “Spaghetti Westerns”—so dubbed because Leone and the producers were Italian—star a grizzly Clint Eastwood who rides sardonically around the untamed West stealing, killing, and (on occasion) defending the needy. In Drive, freeways and side streets replace the endless, rocky vistas and horse is transformed into car, but the silent anti-hero on society’s fringes, living according to a personal moral code out of keeping with the law and the lawless alike remains the same.
The Driver, like Blondie of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is identified only through descriptors laid upon him by others, others to whom he rarely speaks beyond significant eye contact. Irene also bears more of a resemblance to the helpless women of the Western than to the dangerous femme fatal of the noir. Her protection serves as the catalyst to the Driver’s vigilantism, but she has no real power of her own and is never given the opportunity to protect herself or make her own decisions in the intrigue that surrounds her. Irene also serves as the domesticating force from which the hero, in true cowboy form, must ultimately drive/ride away. So, yes, in its depiction of women Drive is far from perfect, but it so perfectly captures and updates the spirit of the Western—a genre very near to my heart—I must ultimately forgive its ideological flaws. In every other respect, from the haunting electric soundtrack, to the beautiful shots of downtown L.A., this movie is about as good as it gets.