The New Cult Canon: 'Drive'
Nicolas Winding Refn's polarizing genre pastiche was a commercial hit, but it wasn't engineered that way.
“There’s 100,000 streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own.” — “The Driver,” Drive
“Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” —Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley, Heat
The script for Walter Hill’s brilliant 1978 neo-noir The Driver opens with six brief one-line descriptions of the lead characters, all of whom are assigned archetypes rather than names: “The Driver,” “The Detective,” “The Player.” Here’s his description of the title character, who would be played by Ryan O’Neal:
Chauffeured getaways for 12 years.
Best Wheelman in the city.
Works off the street.
Never asks a question.
Always wears a dark suit.
And never wears a tie.
Though Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is based on the crime novel by James Sallis, those details in Hill’s script more or less apply, from the nameless lead character to the description of a getaway driver as the consummate professional. Only the wardrobe has changed. In place of a dark suit, Ryan Gosling’s wheelman wears a conspicuous satin jacket with a yellow scorpion on the back, Refn’s nod to the fable “The Scorpion and the Frog,” which comes up late in the film as an example of the criminal kind doing what’s in his nature. Though Drive isn’t quite a deconstruction of genre sources like The Driver, Michael Mann’s Thief and Heat, and the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, it feels a little bit like a mixtape, with Refn mixing-and-matching different elements, fiddling with tempo, and generally acting as a DJ who turns samples into a compelling new pastiche.
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There was a time when Refn was simply delivering the goods, as straightforward and nasty as you like. His Pusher trilogy, which started in 1996 and concluded nearly a decade later with 2004’s Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands and 2006’s Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death, is notable for depicting the violent extremities of the Danish criminal underground, but the films are largely conventional in putting various low-level drug dealers through the gauntlet. With the one-two of the 2008 biopic Bronson and especially the 2009 viking adventure Valhalla Rising, Refn showed an increasing interest in aestheticizing genre movies rather than going through the paces. A film like Valhalla Rising, a showcase for the mostly unknown Mads Mikkelson, reduces the viking film to its brutal essence while drifting into near-total abstraction as our one-eyed Norse hero makes his way through the Scottish Highlands during the Crusades.
The tinkering continued with Drive, which may be his most commercially successful film to date, but full of signs that his time as a mainstream director would be short—and likely accidental. Through his lens, the nocturnal Los Angeles that opens the film recalls the glittering jewel box of Mann’s Heat, and he follows with by far the most gripping sequence, as if to show off the action-and-suspense dexterity that he will deny the audience for the rest of the film—and for nearly all of 2013’s Only God Forgives, 2016’s The Neon Demon, and his perversely slow (though beautiful) TV projects, 2019’s Amazon show Too Old to Die Young and the current Netflix series Copenhagen Cowboy. He was shifting to a new phase in his career.
But here, Drive fully earns the Best Director prize he would win at Cannes, where the film polarized audiences and critics. (Though the boobirds reliably come out for any genre fare included in that festival’s competition slate.) On the latest job arranged by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), an auto repair shop owner with underworld connections, Gosling’s driver chauffeurs a couple of masked thieves after a violent robbery attracts intense police attention. His eyes are on the road and his ears are fixed to two sources: A police scanner and the radio broadcast of that night’s Los Angeles Clippers game. It’s a funny tease for him to seem that locked into the fortunes of the NBA’s most notoriously cursed franchise—the exploits of then-ascendent star Blake Griffin seem more important to him than the police cruisers and helicopters swarming around his car—but he turns out not to be so unhinged.
There is little in Drive that could be called original—it’s a mixtape, as I said—but the way Gosling’s hero manages his escape teases the run-and-gun expectations we might have for a film about a getaway driver. The Driver pulls over. He hides behind a truck or under an overpass. He floors it when necessary but more often slips into traffic, allowing his Chevy Impala, the most popular car in the city, to blend into the flow. It’s as if the car has legs underneath it like The Flintstones, dodging and weaving more like a human than a machine. We’ll see him behind the wheel in other situations later, like flipping a car for an extra $500 on a movie set or test-driving a stock vehicle at full speed on local track. As Shannon likes to brag to the moneymen, there’s nothing he can’t do in a car.
So who is this man? Where’s he going with his life? What are his hopes and dreams? Refn doesn’t care to answer those questions, because that’s the sort of specific psychological profile that would give a man like The Driver a real name. He takes his assignments from Shannon, who acts like his de facto manager, and he doesn’t seem to care that bad luck follows Shannon around like Pigpen’s dirt cloud—and will eventually come for him. The parameters he lays out in opening narration, that “five-minute window,” are like the structure that defines his life, and his basic, reasonable expectation is that clients will respect the professional rigors of his trade. The trouble he faces, like Robert De Niro in Heat or James Caan in Thief, is that cons are often scoundrels. There is no honor among thieves.
The one glimmer of The Driver’s humanity—or at least some hope for future companionship and happiness—comes in his relationship with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who’s been raising her young son alone while his father Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. Refn limits their interactions to deliberately banal dialogue and long looks, enough to communicate a mutual attraction that’s nonetheless absent any lustiness. It is more like a good deed for The Driver to help Irene with groceries and car troubles, or take she and her son for a ride on a sunny afternoon, and that continues when her husband returns from the clink. Standard initially sees The Driver as a threat, but he needn’t. For The Driver, honor and decency so thoroughly trumps desire that he loses his life helping Standard get his sorted out.
The one persistent drag on Drive, and Refn’s more recent work in general, is that his fussy deliberateness can lead to a kind of glum solipsism, attached to a lead character who isn’t giving us much emotion or complexity. His inspired answer to this problem is to cast Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose, a Jewish mobster who’s in business with half-Italian, half-crazy partner Izzy Paolozzi (Ron Perlman), but quietly runs the show. Brooks’ willingness to make himself look bad on screen has been a great hallmark of his career, but as Bernie, he’s unusually self-possessed and confidently diabolical, a man who knows that it takes to survive a literally cutthroat business.
Brooks inserts a spiky humor the film desperately needs, but he’s also a fine counterpoint to The Driver, in that he seems to understand the inevitabilities of his business. When things go south with Shannon and The Driver, and the east coast mob must be appeased, he’s more resigned to the necessity of killing them than animated by it. Brooks projects both a terrifying certainty and an odd compassion when he whips out a straight razor and swipes it down the soft underbelly of Shannon’s forearm. “Don’t worry,” he says. “That’s it. It’s done. There’s no pain. It’s over. It’s over.” It’s his idea of a mercy killing. A few scenes earlier, when he jabs an inept goon with a fork in the eye—that’s done out of genuine malice.
In the Grand Theft Auto sandbox of his color-saturated Los Angeles, Refn directs Drive like he’s playing with some of his favorite toys. He basically lifts the occupation and stripped-down feel of Walter Hill’s film and imagines what it would be like if James Clan’s hot-blooded but straight-shooting safecracker in Thief were played an Alain Delon type. It’s a wonder that a film so strange and resistant to thriller payoffs connected with audiences as much as it did, but then again, the surfaces of Refn’s work are so seductive, from the pop of his primary colors and exquisite compositions to a soundtrack loaded with pulsing electronica and a techno-infused score by Cliff Martinez. It seems appropriate that Refn would go on to make a film about the fashion and modeling industry, The Neon Demon, because Drive feels like a canny bit of aesthetic branding, right down to the beautiful hot-pink cursive of the titles. It’s the perfume that gets you into the store.
I have to admit, I was one of the boobirds disappointed by Drive when I saw it on its initial release. (I was a fan of James Sallis already.) I thought it lost momentum after a terrific opening, and that the sudden turn to extreme brutality was unearned.
However, I’ve since seen Bronson, which I loved, and I’ve recently caught up with the Pusher trilogy, so I think I have a better sense now of where Refn is coming from. I’ve been wanting to see Drive again, and I expect I’ll probably appreciate it more next time.
Not to mention one of the best needle drops of the decade in "Nightcall", crazy how influential the score/music from Drive became. I remember listening to the soundtrack on repeat in highschool.