Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Drive (2011)

by on September 7, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Sept 14 at 7:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Sneak-Preview; Q&A with director Nicolas Winding Refn


As can you see by our scant listings, it’s a dry week in Repertory-land. So we turn our sites on a new release that, well, probably doesn’t need our help. But Drive is good like vintage Michael Mann: plastically perfect synth-pop, US schlock meets Euro art. It’s not at all deep and only faux “heroic,” but it’s super fun, and it contains some of the best car chase sequences ever assembled (literally, ever). On top of a pretty impressive working knowledge of film history, Refn is known as something of a live-wire speaker and gossip. In other words, it’s a promising Q&A that we recommend catching.


Glenn Kenny smells over-hype at his blog Some Came Running… but before the wide-release reviews roll out next week, let’s revisit that quaint little time when buzz just started generating, following the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.


Mike D’Angelo for The Onion AV Club:

I can readily imagine a rabid cult following coalescing around Drive, which looked at a distance like a contemporary remake of Walter Hill’s The Driver (it’s actually based on a recent novel by James Sallis) but turns out to play more like a hypothetical remake of The Driver from ca. 1984-87. after a virtuoso opening sequence depicting a perfectly timed escape from the cops, there’s remarkably little driving in Drive; once The Driver forges an unspoken romance with a fetching neighbor (Carey Mulligan) in his apartment building, the film scans their faces with such searching intensity that the film should arguably be titled Look. Needless to say, there’s a heist-gone-wrong, which gets our hero in Dutch with ‘80s-style baddies played by Ron Perlman and — in one of the greatest against-type casting coups in recent memory — Albert Brooks, who more or less torches his neurotic persona even while remaining recognizably “himself.” But if the plot seems disposable, and the relationships vaguely hollow, Winding Refn and his superlative cast put it all across with an uncommon directness that seems to somehow transcend cliché, even as if the film cheerfully replicates many of the schlockiest tropes of the generic ‘80s action flick. At least half a dozen scenes are burned into my memory for life, including not one but two of the most jarring, heartbreaking juxtapositions of tenderness and violence this side of classic Kitano. At its best, it’s pure genre bliss.


A bizarre, freewheeling Question and Answer session with Gosling and Refn that opens with a question from Jesus and discussion of the influence of Pretty Woman… and doesn’t let up from there. For Moviefone’s “Unscripted.”

More, somewhat serious, interviews with the two from Cannes:

James Rocchi for The Playlist:

Why is “Drive”—a seemingly trivial affair about a stuntman and part-time getaway driver, played by Ryan Gosling, pulled into deep and bloody waters on the neon-and-streetlight lit streets of L.A.—even at Cannes, let alone in competition? It’s not merely because of the bloody-but-brilliant background of director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose films (the “Pusher” trilogy, “Bronson,” “Valhalla Rising”) have demonstrated both an eye for composition and a taste for the jugular. It’s not merely because of the film’s cinematic roots, with the production seemingly crafted as a clear tribute to ‘80s-era Michael Mann and other synthesizer-and-faux-leather action-crime stories. Rather, you can make a case that “Drive” is here because action cinema and genre cinema are too important—and too exciting, enthralling and, yes, artful when well made—to be merely dismissed as suitable only for hacks to make and dolts to watch. French enthusiasm for American crime cinema from the ‘40s and ‘50s gave us the vocabulary and value set to truly appreciate film noir—and anyone who can truly appreciate film noir will appreciate “Drive.”


Refn’s direction is so subtly and beautifully framed that you don’t notice how good it is until much later. A brief stolen moment on an elevator shines with amber slow-mo light. An adroit fade takes the story exactly where it needs to go. And the car matters are shot in a way that makes it clear that for Driver, a car is not an extension of muscle, but, rather, of intellect and will as well. Refn also keeps the violence quick, brisk and brutal—the people who are shot in this film do not clutch idly at a squib’s dot of blood before grunting their way to the ground, and the people who do the killing are splattered with gore—and this is as it should be. Some will object to Gosling’s lack of backstory or motivation for his criminal acts, but if we had to choose between a movie that leaves these things to the imagination or over-elaborates them with the rambling sweaty eye-shifting tale-telling of a bad liar, I’ll take the former. “Drive” works as a great demonstration of how, when there’s true talent behind the camera, entertainment and art are not enemies but allies.’s The Vulture documents Refn and Gosling’s “bromance” in a slideshow.


Daniel Kasman for MUBI:

A small story and a small production are offset by the ‘scope frame’s extensive, vibrant use negative space, big empty swathes of the screen used for popping shapes of color and light. There is more negative space then there are characters in the film, and that piercing anti-content re-invests the blank fatalism of Drive’s few people with a further emptiness, as if their vacant stares project out of their eyes pure, vacuous graphic abstractions.


But onward from the conventions—L.A.’s suburban clutter replaces the volcanic, empty Nordic landscapes of Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, but the same social, human, and political emptiness of that imagistically stunning digital film is retained in this new setting by those who move through it. No film I’ve seen in Cannes has used color or the widescreen as well, the latter calling back to the sharp craft of Japanese studio genre masters of the 1960s, finding flares and geometries that please and complete (or incomplete) the cinema frame. But, in Drive, to what purpose other than to carve with precision fat free comic book imagery? The film has a neo-Melvillean quality in its restrained acting, its uncompromising people-just-doing-their-job, its mise-en-scène dragged out of the soul of its hero. But it is also evacuated of the forces that drive Jean-Pierre’s lonely criminals, and what is dragged out of Drive’s soul is a near sublime absence. The film is clearly inspired by silent, lonely driving through the nocturnal streets of Los Angeles—making it a strong double feature with Michael Mann’s Collateral—only this driving state of mind is that of a sociopath whose physical beauty and predictable restraint (and later, lack of it) are matching analogs to the film’s pure, beautifully controlled surface. The zen calm of this night cruise is the calm of the soulless.


Andrew O’Hehir for Salon:

Take an immensely skillful young European director with a worldwide cult following, a hot young North American actor with considerable cultural cachet and a classic Los Angeles heist-gone-wrong story that recalls both Roger Corman’s B-movie aesthetic and the glossy Hollywood spectacles of Michael Mann. You probably know already whether that’s a movie you’d line up around the block to see or one you’d pay to avoid. Refn’s composition and lighting and editing instincts are miles ahead of most people who work in action movies. He’s not enslaved by these archetypal characters and this classic “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” plot, nor is he seeking to reinvent or “subvert” them. It seems to me that he’s trying to answer the question of what happens when you make this kind of American crime film really, really well: Is it just a slick, nifty entertainment, or can it lay bare issues about human nature that other forms of storytelling never quite face? “Drive” builds extraordinary tension before exploding in brief outbursts of shocking violence, almost in the mode of a samurai film. There’s one sequence shot in an elevator, which takes the movie from love story to violent revenge thriller within a few seconds, that film students will be deconstructing, shot by shot, for years to come. (“Drive” was shot by ace cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, whose credits include “Three Kings” and “The Usual Suspects.”)


“Drive” was literally greeted with hoots and howls of joy from the press here, who perhaps felt beaten down by almost two weeks of sober, serious art-house cinema with nary an ass-kicking or supercharged Impala in sight. I felt some of the same exhilaration, but those who are comparing “Drive” to, say, “Pulp Fiction” today are getting overamped on the sea air and sunlight and strong coffee of the Mediterranean. Whatever you think of Tarantino’s 1994 Palme d’Or winner, it literally changed the course of movie history and established a paradigm for indie-film success that hasn’t quite been exorcised 17 years later. “Drive” has neither the outsize ambition nor the Godardian, art-school lack of discipline of that film — and anyway, what happened to “Pulp Fiction” can only happen once. Refn’s breakthrough film is successful in quite a different way, as an injection of clear, cool European technique into a classic American fable of guns, cars, girls and money. I think that’s quite enough.


Glenn Heath Jr. for The House Next Door:

Drive’s narrative trajectory goes down a long and winding road into hell, and Refn’s genre signposts form stirring corridors, avenues, and lanes of directionality. Dimly lit hallways, empty doorways, recycling stoplights, and tinted windows all reflect varying shades of shadow and light. A key scene in a cramped elevator is the apex of Refn’s contrast between light and dark, displaying the purity of emotion one moment before cutting directly to the film’s most insanely brutal exchange. If there’s a more riveting moment in a film this year I’ll be shocked.


As Driver propels forward through these haloed spaces, his silent façade gains a level of texture that elevates Drive beyond a simple genre exercise; this is just as much a study of faces as it is a virtuoso stylistic homage. Refn makes the entire film one long battle for safe passage, specifically Driver’s need to section off regret, guilt, violence, and horror from Irene’s family. The visual and audio details, along with the perfectly cued pop music score, make Drive completely enthralling. Examples are aplenty: shadows of two men immersed in a knife fight, a crashing car overturning behind the foreground action, and a slow-motion march of death down a flickering strip club’s entrance. All are wonderful echoes of a blistering genre past, and in Drive they are brilliantly reimagined for a whole new generation of cinephiles to appreciate.

Dennis Lim interviews Refn and Gosling for the New York Times ArtsBeat blog:

Ryan, you were attached to “Drive” before Nicolas — what drew you to the project and why did you think he would be a good fit?

RYAN GOSLING Well, everyone’s playing superheroes and I just felt like I wanted to make a superhero movie too, you know? I just knew he was the one. I had the feeling every time I watched one of his movies like I was watching somebody step up to the plate and point for a home run before they even swung the bat. He’s not shooting for anything less. This is a well-explored genre, and the only way to approach it is if you’re shooting for that.


NICOLAS WINDING REFN It was Steve McQueen who decided that it was going to be Peter Yates who was going to come to America and make “Bullitt” with him. It was Lee Marvin who decided it was going to be John Boorman coming to America to make “Point Blank.” And it was Ryan who was interested in this film and could decide who the director was and brought me to Hollywood. What’s interesting about that way of starting a relationship is it becomes very pure. It’s not your conventional Hollywood meeting where you meet this person and that person. You have lot of those meetings, when people just meet and talk and it’s interesting, but what happened in our situation was that, for me at least —


GOSLING [laughs]: I always get nervous at this point because I’m pretty sure this is when he says he penetrated me cinematically, or I creatively lost my virginity to him, or that we made a movie baby in the backseat of my car.


The story is full of archetypal characters and familiar situations, which, Nicolas, you seem to approach by stripping things down, almost to the point of abstraction. And Ryan, especially in contrast to some of your recent roles, it’s a very stoic, minimalist performance.

REFN Two years ago I started to read Grimm fairy tales to my daughter and they’re very simplistic but also extremely complex. It’s minimalism — there’s almost no dialogue, it’s all about descriptions of emotions. The characters are always the same: there’s a prince or a knight, an innocent woman who’s extremely beautiful and pure and needs protection, an evil king or a witch. And that is essentially the DNA of the structure of “Drive.” It’s a fairy tale that takes Los Angeles as the background. The hero, Driver, is very easy in a sense: by day he’s a real human being, by night he’s a real hero. What is there to say, because his mystique is his strength.


GOSLING I’d just done “Blue Valentine,” which I’d had a beautiful experience making but I had talked a lot, it was highly improvised. I was tired of talking and Nicolas wasn’t really interested in anything that my character [in “Drive”] had to say. Every time he talked it just felt wrong, so we spent the mornings going through and taking out all the dialogue, taking off all the fat. It felt like the right thing to do but it only works because you have Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman and Carey Mulligan and Oscar Isaac supporting that choice.


People have compared “Drive” to films from earlier eras: Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime films and “Point Blank” from the ’60s; “The Driver” and “Two-Lane Blacktop” from the ’70s. But the electro-pop soundtrack and the hot-pink title font suggest the ’80s more than anything.

REFN It’s a mixture of it all. The film is dedicated to [Alejandro] Jodorowsky [the Mexican cult filmmaker best known for the ’70s midnight movie “El Topo”] and there’s a bit of Jodorowsky existentialism.


GOSLING We both also agree that if “Sixteen Candles” had a head-smashing it would be a masterpiece. The only thing John Hughes’s movies were missing was violence.


REFN So we called up Gaspar Noé and asked him how he did the head smashing in “Irreversible.” He’s the king of head smashing — you’ve got to call the king. And “Drive” also belongs to the genre of L.A. noir and to this niche genre, which is called neon noir and a lot of those films are from around 1979 to 1984.


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