The first ten minutes of Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) are some kind of manifesto. The film's nameless anti-hero is the wheelman for a robbery. He tells his compatriots that he'll be there for five minutes. They don't need to know the getaway route, and if they're late by even one minute, he's gone. The Driver also appears to be a sports fan, but that's part of the plan. The resultant chases sequence is unlike any other chase I can remember seeing on film, as the filmmakers map out a strategic cat and mouse game that relies less on speed--though that helps--and more on grace under pressure, intelligence, and seeing two moves ahead. I say that this is some kind of manifesto, and I think it is. It's a repudiation of the way Hollywood films action sequences. This is not a run and gun sequence, nor even a classical Hollywood action sequence a la Bullit. This is a sequence that deconstructs the conventions of action. It breaks it apart and examines its function. It provides the audience with the geography of the scene, with a crystal clarity of purpose. It shows not just what happens, but why, and it shows how each actions flows into the next. This sort of thing used to be the province of directors from Hong Kong, though they never wielded it as a kind of ideological statement the way Refn does. Refn, it should be noted, is a Dane.
The rest of the movie shows the same kind of clockwork precision and economy of action. The Driver is a stuntman and mechanic who makes an occasional payday as a getaway driver. During the movie's first act after the prelude, we see a little bit of his life. We see him performing a dangerous stunt for a pathetically small payday. We see him as he becomes enamoured of his pretty neighbor and her son. We meet his mentor. And the filmmakers set up the conflict of the second half of the film. The Driver's neighbor, Irene has a husband who is getting out of prison. The husband has debts from prison. The Driver's mentor, Shannon, has financial problems, too, and he's pitching The Driver as the key to getting rich in stock car racing if he can only get the scratch to build a car. The investor he approaches is former movie producer and current gangster Bernie Rose. Rose has an unruly henchman named Nino, a brutal and ambitious second in command, who has no interest in anything that doesn't come with a heaping dollop of gangland respect. As far as the movie is concerned, these are all pieces of clockwork, and like the opening sequence, each sprocket fits exactly. The second half of the movie shows how the clockwork runs. Irene's husband asks The Driver to be the wheelman on a heist that will pay off his debt and leave him free to be the father to his son. The target is a pawn shop, where the take will be $40,000, though the reality is quite different. The Driver agrees, but the whole thing goes bust. It's a set-up in which the thieves are intended to take the fall while the actual robbery is a million dollars and the real thieves are a second team entirely. Unfortunately, The Driver is too good at his job and that heist goes awry. When the heist's masterminds come to take out the survivors, The Driver discovers that Nino is behind the whole thing. When Nino tells Rose about the whole thing, the breadth of everyone's dilemma is made clear. There will be no winners.
Apart from the opening action scene, there are two other key scenes in Drive. In the first, early in the movie, The Driver is approached by a former client who wants to engage him in a barroom conversation. The Driver will have none of it and when he tells the guy off, there's a flash of steely ruthlessness that will come to define the character. This comes after we've seen The Driver engaging in a kind of romance with Irene. Up until this point, The Driver has seemed completely benign. Charming even. A nice guy. This scene upends this. The other defining scene finds The Driver and Irene in an elevator with one of Nino's underlings. sent to kill them both. This scene is the movie in a nutshell. The Driver kisses Irene with surprising passion, before turning on the goon and smashing his skull. Irene, the film's only true innocent, retreats from the elevator with a shocked expression as The Driver looks at her with a mixture of loss and incomprehension. As the door closes on her as she backs into the parking garage, The Driver is severed from a life of lovingkindness. The movie afterward becomes a kind of existential bloodsport.
Refn does love his violence. He likes to take it the extra step. The elevator scene is one example, and where a less ruthless director might turn his camera away from The Driver's foot as it destroys a man's head, Refn makes it as explicit and ugly as he can. He does something similar in the scene where The Driver and Blanche (the third participant in the pawn shop robbery) are attacked in a motel room. Refn is all about the shotgun decapitation, and the aftermath. These scenes rely on that flash of steely ruthlessness I mentioned to make them seem organic. The Driver is a bad motherfucker.
When Drive isn't in motion, it has a kind of classical stillness. It's not quite the classical frieze that Valhalla Rising was, but it's along the same lines. There's a striking scene where the Driver is surrounded by nude or mostly nude women that's positively surreal. They don't move; it's like they're posed like mannequins. As a stylistic exercise, Drive is like an early Michael Mann film. Thief, maybe. Or Manhunter. Only better, I think, because it's not suffocated by its style. The quality of the actors helps immeasurably.
This movie has an uncommonly good cast. Ryan Gosling is able to turn on the charm in the scenes with Carey Mulligan's Irene that he developed in romantic movies, while he has a blankfaced psychopathy in his arsenal as well. Mulligan is good, too, in a relatively thankless role that turns particularly good. Bryan Cranston's Shannon is a nice variant of Walter White, though weaker (the actor affects a limp as an outward manifestation of Shannon's weakness). Christina Hendricks is more a presence than anything as Blanche. The limited amount of time her character gets kind of hamstrings her as far as building a character and Blanche is the most ill-defined character in the movie. Ron Perlman can play characters like Nino in his sleep. The movie belongs, ultimately, to Albert Brooks, who is cast way against type. Who knew that he had such coiling nastiness in him? His Bernie Rose is simultaneously a vicious parody of the has-bin Hollywood producer, and an indictment of the movie business itself as a kind of gangsterism. Brooks's screen persona is such that when Rose begins opening the veins of the people around him, it's an attack on the audience, too. It's as good a bit of casting as any in recent memory.
I wish the very ending of Drive were more focused than it is. This is very much in the hard boiled tradition, where characters are defined by what they do. It's inconceivable that Philip Marlowe has a personal life. When he wakes up, he's a detective and he remains one until he goes to sleep. So, too, is The Driver. He's not even given the grace of having a name. Driving IS who he is. Everything else is secondary. So, I can understand why the filmmakers would have him simply drive away from everything. This is a deliberately existential movie, after all. But the way this is accomplished is the film's only real false note. Does he die behind the wheel? Given how he's been stabbed at the film's end, he bloody well should, but the movie is cagey about this. The film show him driving at night at the end, hours after he should be dead. Is he? Who knows? It's a useless piece of ambiguity and smacks a little of a Hollywood ending, which is disappointing in a film that has so astutely dismantled the way that Hollywood does things up until that very point.