Wednesday, May 30, 2012


(Nicolas Winding Refn, USA, 2011)

Refn's movie prompts an important question: is there a point at which style, raised to some critical temperature, transforms into substance?  Based solely on the evidence of DRIVE, the answer would have to be no.  Refn's visual panache is hard to fault, but the film suffers from a fatal kind of formal incoherence.  With all of its long stretches of impeccably composed, dialogue free, music heavy (and frequently slo-mo) action, it would be easy to mistake this film for some detached "meditation" on violence, chaos, or some other such Serious Concept, and indeed, several critics have done exactly that.  But DRIVE isn't some highfalutin think piece - it's a good old fashioned morality play.   To be fair, several critics do seem to have understood this, but also seem to have missed the fact that it's an incredibly poorly done morality play.

Gosling's character, the not-quite-titular Driver, is a classic Nameless Hero; a taciturn man who lives by a code.  He's honorable, extremely competent, and his cool facade is meant to hide a heart that yearns for love. But his life is thrown off-kilter by the introduction of Carey Mulligan as the cute girl who lives down the hall.  In attempting to help out the woman for whom he's fallen, he sets into motion a string of events that ends in disaster.  Because our hero isn't just nameless: he's also tragic.  Violence follows him like a bad odor, and how could it not?  It's stamped on the back of his signature driving jacket; the totemic scorpion, a born predator, compelled to strike even if it means self-destruction.  All the scorpion knows is how to sting; all the Driver knows is how to use force, whether it be with a car, a hammer, or a shotgun.

Taken on their own, these are compelling ideas, and it's to Refn's credit that he attempts to bring them alive in the movie.  But he buries their human dimension under a thick layer of superfluous stylization, and all we're left with is a limp pseudo-tragedy.  The ending is meant to feel both tragic and redemptive - the Driver may not have found a connection to human society, but he did manage to save his beloved and her child.  The problem is that we're never given enough information to care very much.  The most interesting characters - really, the only people in the movie worthy of such designation - are the gangsters.  Brooks' performance, despite being given little to work with in the script, is perfectly pitched between menacing swagger and mournful regret.  In a few keys scenes involving him and his associate, play by Ron Perelman, there is more emotion and sympathy than in any of the multiple shots that linger on Gosling's worried eyes.

And we know what Zizek would say - something along the lines of DRIVE being about the frustrated libido, the explosion of violence that results from the stifling of sexual urges.  And he'd have plenty to back it up - DRIVE, for all of it's sensuous colors and sultry camera movements, depicts nothing more sexual than a kiss, and even that is used as a prelude to a sudden outburst of brutal violence.  Gosling is weirdly asexual, or even pre-sexual, in his depiction of the Driver.   Carey Mulligan's character is blandly wholesome, and it's telling that she is saved, and Christina Hendricks' sexy gun moll meets a rather different, and much more gory, end.  There is a scene with some nudity, but it's mostly decoration - a frozen tableaux of fake tits and blank stares that watch helplessly as Gosling threatens to bash a man's head in with a hammer.  All of which seems to suggest that sexuality, in this film, is something just outside the frame - a marker of human messiness that threatens at any moment to disrupt the crisp, squared-off images.  It's an interpretation that makes the movie a little more fun to watch, but not as much fun as if Refn had stuck to his guns and concentrated more on good old-fashioned drama.