A Note: I’m no longer going to post review summaries, seeing as they are redundant and often pass over points I stress in the bodies of the reviews themselves. So there it is.
You are seated on a ratty bed in a motel room. All is still, and quiet. There is a woman in the bathroom, crying. You hear something outside the door. The knob moves ever so slightly. Outside the bathroom, a man raises a shotgun. You roll over and take hold of the mattress, throw it at the door, and–
Saying any more would spoil one of the fantastic action sequences in Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliant ‘Drive’, an adaptation of James Sallis‘ neo-noir novel. This, like ‘No Country For Old Men‘, is a master class in suspense. What Refn does in silence and stillness is infinitely more effective than the roar and the shake of the generic modern action picture. Here is a film where we can look into a performer’s eyes and see the soul behind them, or the lack thereof, and so much more is said in the pauses than the scant lines of dialog. Here is a film with bright neon and deep shadows, with rumbling engines and the creak of leather gloves. Here is a film where a moment of love and one of violence can occur in frightful sequence stretched out so long we feel we will snap. I daresay, quite pompously, here is a film.
Before I go any further, take a look at this two minute clip of the film’s opening sequence on the Cannes Festival site. Now you know what we’re talking about.
According to Refn, in an interview with Jeff Goldsmith on the Q&A Podcast, the idea was to translate fairy tale archetypes into a neo-noir setting. Gosling’s Man With No Name character, the Driver, is therefore the Knight, prompted to protect the Damsel, who is played by the stunning Carey Mulligan. But there’s no point in using archetypes, in my view, unless you subvert them, as is par for the course when you’re talking film noir. Refn goes on to describe the now infamous scene in the elevator (you’ll have to see it; probably between your fingers) as the film in a bottle, the central moral conflict displayed at its clearest. It is the ultimate neo noir sequence; it demonstrates the director’s ability to slow down time and extend a powerful, beautiful moment, only to shatter it with an act of brutality, severing the link between the Knight and the Damsel beyond repair, on account of their natures which they cannot compromise.
Every supporting performance in the film is wonderfully wrought, but I’d like to further highlight Gosling and Mulligan. They play the two sides of the coin, and share a quietness and an ability to communicate best with their eyes and the slightest movements of their lips. As Refn observes in the Q&A interview, filmmakers and audiences are often scared of silence, and I would add that this is because dialog is the clothing which naked emotion demands. Refuse to cover it, however, and the scene is wrought with suspense; sometimes of the dangerous kind, sometimes of the sexual, sometimes of the moral. If you want to know if your male and female leads have chemistry, put them in a scene together where they cannot speak, but have so much to say. Suffice it to say, Gosling and Mulligan have it, and that tension underlines the whole film.
Nicholas Winding Refn clearly understands something so damn crucial to the art that it makes some other filmmakers appear downright pathetic. If you, the hypothetical filmmaker, have a whole movie full of giant robots blasting through skyscrapers with lasers and missiles, and you still can’t manage the visceral shock generated by a single sound in Refn’s film, you’re doing it wrong. Stop making movies. If you’re a filmgoer, however, and you would rather be awash in the mind-numbing, meaningless chaos of a ‘Transformers’ film than seek out the human truth present in films running the gamut between ‘Drive’ and ‘The King’s Speech’, than you should probably stop watching movies. Yes, I know I’m being harsh and leaning hard on hyperbole; but there is nevertheless such a thing as taste, and an obligation as an informed viewer to cultivate the good and shirk the bad.
If there’s anything wrong with ‘Drive’, is that it has no business being this good, much less in this market, with ungrateful audiences who will gladly patronize the latest regurgitated fluff and somehow still find room to complain about the lack of original material. Seriously, people; this movie might not be your cup of tea, but it’s a damn sight better than most fare. In truth, ‘Drive’ is an anachronism, something you could’ve caught an auteur making in the ’70s and early ’80s. It makes me rather giddy to declare this thing Kubrickian.
For further exploration of this film, I recommend, of course, the excellent interview referenced earlier, as well as the hilarious (and insightful) thoughts of Film Critic Hulk; Matthew DeKinder’s review; Laremy Legel’s review; Jim Emerson’s thoughts (though I disagree thoroughly on some points); a very good comment on Emerson’s site; and anything else of repute you happen to find on Google.