Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a new feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you've seen it or if you don't mind knowing everything that happens.
So much goes unspoken in Drive that it’s easy to think that the movie actually as nothing to say. But Nicolas Winding Refn’s adaptation of James Sallis novel of the same name shares much in common with cinematic predecessors like The Driver, Thief, Bullitt, and Le Samourai in that dialogue is often the least effective, or perhaps necessary, method of communication; its scenes are so stripped of words that not just actions, but costumes, cinematography, music, and the locations themselves offer insight into characters and story. Suffice it to say that should be the case for all films, but the fact that it isn’t makes Refn’s film stand out even more, as the filmmaker behind Bronson and Valhalla Rising creates a singular combination of style and substance whose visceral and emotional weight only appreciates with each viewing.
Playing a character who’s gloriously bereft of a back story, Ryan Gosling is Driver, a stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman for robberies at the behest of Shannon (Bryan Cranston), his well-meaning but feckless employer. In the film’s opening scene, he successfully pitches a pair of thieves on his services, and then demonstrates why they were right to hire him: After the duo piles into his back seat, loot in hand, he skillfully navigates the streets of downtown Los Angeles, evading the authorities while maintaining an imperturbable cool. The entire scene is shot from Driver’s point of view inside the car, as if man and machine are one, while Refn uses both diegetic sound and the soundtrack to underscore his unflappability in the face of real danger. (That Driver is listening to an L.A. Clippers game says less about his passion for sports, or even his ability to multitask, than his calculated choice to make a very public place the destination for his final getaway.)
Using Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” as the opening credits music is an inspired choice as much because it’s unassailably cool as it sort of speaks directly to Driver about the journey that he (and by extension the audience) is about to go on: “I'm gonna tell you something you don't want to hear/ I'm gonna show you where it's dark, but have no fear.” The hot-pink opening credits evoke the scribble of the title art for another iconic Los Angeles car film, To Live and Die in L.A., but Refn said he chose the font and color as an homage to John Hughes. Meanwhile, Refn depicts Driver’s day jobs as stuntman and mechanic as two sides of a superhero’s existence: Driver can do anything behind the wheel of a car, but he hardly seems like anything while he’s working beneath the hood. In fact, Refn preserves Driver’s insular day-to-day existence so completely that even the sound of the outside world is largely obscured; although the action takes place in one continuous shot, it’s only after Driver consciously chooses to help his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) – letting her into his world - that Refn introduces the sound of her car in the parking lot, immediately adjacent to his.
The evolution of the relationship between Driver, Irene and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos) plays like a case study in screen chemistry. After Driver charms Benicio, protective of his mom in a Halloween mask, Driver and Irene’s conversation is filled with a knowing, mutual connection that requires no revelatory dialogue and yet says everything that each of them needs. He explains that he’s a stunt driver. She asks, “isn’t that dangerous?” Refn’s camera lingers on Mulligan’s face, showing how alluring that very possibility is to Irene. He understands – not just that she seems drawn to him, but clearly that her attraction to dangerous men, like her imprisoned husband, has left her a single mother struggling to survive – and he reassures her, “it’s only part time.” As Refn explains in the link above, their relationship isn’t based on shared interests, or even the right language, but by an undeniable magnetism that supersedes everything else – an immediate knowledge that they share something special.
But not long after their third date, Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, and Driver is sort of forced to return to the hermetically-sealed world of criminals and camshafts, but for the first time in what seems like a long time, it isn’t enough. Desire’s dreamy “Under Your Spell” works overtime during Standard’s homecoming celebration, as vocalist Megan Louise repeats the song’s title while the camera cuts between Driver tinkering alone in his apartment, Standard promising to repair the damage of his past deeds, and Irene watching Standard as she’s thinking of Driver. Though Standard makes it clear that his family don’t need him any longer, he reluctantly enlists Driver to help him pull off a robbery after a pair of thugs rough him up and threaten to do the same to Irene and Benicio.
Perhaps predictably, the robbery goes catastrophically wrong, and Standard is killed while Driver ends up with a bag full of mob money that he definitely does not want. In the ensuring car chase, Refn removes all superfluous sound and allows the sound of two dueling engines to fill the soundtrack. Although Driver is astute enough to realize that their third accomplice, a stripper named Blanche (Christina Hendricks), has double-crossed them, he isn’t able to maintain his strict no-guns policy after two men ambush them in their hotel hideout and he’s forced to turn their weapons on them. What’s interesting about this sequence is that it’s the first time in the film that Driver has seemed to allow his vulnerability show through – not that he cares for the first time in the film, but that as a result of caring he’s become susceptible to not just losing control of the situation he’s in, but ultimately, the world he’s constructed for himself.
The escalation of events is uncomplicated, but not simplistic: after discovering that he and Standard unwittingly stole the money at the behest of a local gangster named Nino (Ron Perlman), Driver naively offers to return it in exchange for nothing more than his freedom. Because Nino is insecure and impetuous, he condescends to Driver, and he is soon forced to enlist his partner Bernie (Albert Brooks) in recovering the money. The two mob men agree to solve the problem in the best way they know how – namely by leaving no loose ends, and no survivors – but they soon discover that underneath Driver’s placid surface there lurks a calculating killer every bit as cold-blooded as they are. Driver, meanwhile, tries to explain himself to Irene, confessing the circumstances that led to Standard’s death, and offering to give her the money and take care of her and Benicio.
It feels surprisingly early, but the film climaxes in this scene, as Driver regresses to a level of almost childlike innocence; his offer to take care of Irene sounds like a teenager feebly asking the girl of his dreams for a date he’ll never get. In caring for her, he has literally lost everything that gave him a sense of confidence or security, most important of which was the constancy of his quiet, under-the-radar life. And yet, he seems unable to deny his love for her – a pure affection, untainted even by sex – even as he recognizes that it has caused his life to crash down around him. In a moment of both tenderness and brutality, he defends her from a man who’s come to kill them both; he embraces her and offers his only physical expression of love – a chaste kiss – and then turns and graphically dispatches the man, releasing the depths of his feelings in a cathartic outpour of violence. Not unlike the awful but purposeful rape scene between Noodles and Deborah in Once Upon a Time in America, Driver realizes at some level that he has to show Irene what he’s capable of in order to protect her, mostly from himself, and he lets loose a torrent of those bottled up feelings in a way that appropriately terrifies her.
The remainder of the movie is Driver rebuilding his identity – doing what must be done and in the way only he knows how. He is emboldened by his commitment to protecting Irene, even as he knows that he cannot be a part of her life, and so in much the same way Nino and Bernie elect to eliminate all possible threats to their authority, Driver eliminates all threats to Irene and Benicio’s lives. Bernie is a counterpart to Driver in that he is plain-spoken and direct, but for more nefarious purposes; where Driver wants to remain unassuming and call little attention to himself, Bernie is pointed honesty, reminding the people around him that he understands them, has their number, and that they had better respect him for having that knowledge. Their showdown in the final scene is a masterful exchange of clarity that resolves Driver’s doubts, even he recognizes that he will almost certainly pay the ultimate price for it.
In that moment, Driver speaks truth to power without saying anything; Bernie is the evil king in a fairy tale, and Driver the knight in shining armor who has protected the princess from his clutches. Of course, Bernie thinks he is protected by his “honesty,” but Driver has love and virtue on his side, and in fairy tales, those qualities always prevail. Refn said that while he was making the film he was reading his daughter Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and their influence is a less obvious but palpable one on the story’s dreamlike trajectory. He isn’t trying to create anything that approximates reality, he’s offering a fantastical tale where the purest love between two people is tested by the evil of a tyrant, and that love prevails.
The final song played in the film is “Real Hero” by College, and it’s the only one played more than once. While its title provides an obvious sort of punctuation to Driver’s journey, the way it’s used in the film suggests it has a different meaning each time. In the first sequence, Driver has yet to discover that Irene’s husband will ever get out of jail, and his relationship with her will ever be jeopardized; the first time the song is played, it suggests it’s his thoughts – that he can be the hero that she needs. The second time suggests that it’s hers – she recognizes the sacrifice that he made for her, and that as she’s walking away from the unopened door to his abandoned apartment, she realizes that she wants and maybe needs him to protect her. In a surprisingly unique way, the music choices Refn uses don’t just enhance or comment upon the emotional tone of the moment, but they very specifically articulate the emotions of the characters when they cannot or will not say them.
Far from an exercise in style, Drive is a modern-day fairy tale, a superhero origin story, and a dense and detailed character study all in one. Comparisons to other films about drivers and car chases and tight-lipped men who linger on the fringes of the law provide a helpful context to Refn’s film, but it’s neither pastiche nor homage; it’s a singular work whose impact isn’t reliant on a foundation of Steve McQueen, Walter Hill, or even Carl Theodor Dreyer references, even ones he admitted to. And while there’s certainly some enjoyment to be gained from the knowledge that the film’s one non-electronic song, Riz Ortolani’s “Oh My Love,” is from the infamous exploitation film Goodbye Uncle Tom, the actual influence or inspiration derived from these disparate sources has been cuisinarted into the ether of Refn’s own creativity. Remarkably, the film’s substance only deepens upon subsequent viewings, revealing different shades, dimensions, and details, making Drive a unique experience that you can experience uniquely many, many times, even as it retains the core excitement and energy of being a well-told, engaging tale.