I’ve been thinking about something lately, and seeing Drive recently turned out to be a bit of synchronicity since, in its own way, Drive is largely an illustration of the concept: Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t real. And vice versa.
Drive isn’t something that happened. It started as a terrific, mean little novel by James Sallis, and was adapted into a screenplay by Hossein Amini, envisioned by director Nicolas Winding Refn with star Ryan Gosling, and filmed (impeccably) by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. It’s an incredible movie, far and away one of the most accomplished of this year, but it’s not reportage. It’s a daydream for nighttime.
Somehow, that makes it truer than many movies that purport to be “based on a true story.”
The story is as simple and quite frankly, as familiar as any in noir history: The central character is a young man (Ryan Gosling) known only as Driver. That naming comes from the book and the press: he’s never named in the film, at best only called “The Kid”. His only friend is a man named Shannon (Breaking Bad‘s phenomenal Bryan Cranston), a crippled mechanic who keeps Driver employed by day as a stunt driver for the movies, and at night as a wheelman for low-level armed robbery jobs. Driver lives by himself in a sparse apartment in Los Angeles. Eventually, he forms a potentially romantic connection with a young mother (Carey Mulligan) and her son, whose father (named Standard, played by Oscar Isaac) is set to return from jail soon. As Shannon puts Driver in contact with movie producer Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his underworld affiliate Nino (Ron Perlman), Driver’s personal and criminal lives are due to intersect. Basically, the loner meets a nice lady as he’s descending deeper into darkness. Oldest noir tale in the book; all it’s missing is the femme fatale. What makes this movie so dramatically far apart from business as usual is its style. This movie is so distinctly orchestrated that, even though on paper it’s similar to so many other movies, on film it resembles a precious few.
Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the most compelling visual stylists working in movies today. Here he’s made what feels exactly like a long-lost Michael Mann movie, frozen somewhere between 1983 and 1986 and thawed out just now for a modern audience. Guys, I don’t think I have a higher caliber of compliment in the chamber than that one. Honestly, the movie that Drive most resembles is Mann’s 1981 breakthrough feature Thief: It has the same seemingly languid yet impeccably deliberate pace, the roiling mood, the shocking outbursts of realistic violence, the addictively throbbing electronic score, the exacting attention to detail, the blue-collar sidekick played by a familiar TV actor (Cranston in for James Belushi), the bizarre but thunderingly effective left-field casting choices (Willie Nelson as the heart of Thief, Albert Brooks as the snake in Drive) — it’d be easy to describe Drive as the most successful Michael Mann homage in memory, except for the fact that it’s its own thing. Refn has been building up to exactly this, for a while now. Drive is an irresistible blend of the stylized realism of Bronson (2008) and the universalized dreaminess of Valhalla Rising (2009). It also brings a whole new color palette: While Michael Mann favors steel blues and pistol grays, Refn experiments with warmer colors like greens, browns, and even pinks. Somehow, both interpretations of Los Angeles are apt.
Having spent a formative portion of my life in Los Angeles, I have always recognized a measure of truth in Michael Mann’s movies. Mann shoots L.A. the way L.A. looks to me. In his first movie set in Los Angeles, Nicolas Winding Refn manages the same feat. It’s not just the look; it’s also the atmosphere. In a scene where Driver takes Irene (Mulligan’s character) and her son on a joy ride through the L.A. river, it looks and feels just the way L.A. looks and feels at sunset. One reason so many people discount the virtues of Los Angeles is because we’re pummeled with pedestrian images on TV shows such as 90210 and Entourage; uninspired, pansy shit selling emptiness. There is actual beauty to Los Angeles if you know where to find it, along with an existential isolation and a visceral spookiness; all of which is contained within Drive.
So I recognize this movie to be true. It fits in with my experience, particularly now, when I am thinking and writing about Los Angeles from the East Coast. In my mind, my memories merge with cinematic imagery: In my opinion, that’s how both individual memory and the art of cinema work; it’s why movies mean so much to so many of us. So while I’m not half the driver that Driver is (an understatement), while I’ve never carried on with the estranged wife of an imprisoned felon (as far as I know), while I’ve never taken a blunt instrument to a strip club owner (that I can remember), there is a lot contained in Drive that I can attest to resembling the world of Los Angeles. This is one reason I loved the movie so much.
I’m also fully enamored of Refn’s style, most particularly the way he works with violence on-screen — his editing rhythms and lolling camerawork manage to lull the audience nearly into a trance, which makes the sudden eruption of savagery all the more unsettling. It creates the effect in people that violence in movies should have: it makes violence scary.
I also love the way that, just as he did in Bronson, Refn perfectly deploys music, both the score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic) and the poppy Euro-trash electro-candy that punctuates the ongoing events. The music is both functional, enhancing the mood of the story, and diagetic, which means that the songs that are playing on the soundtrack are often the songs that Driver is listening to in his car or in his apartment. It’s easy to imagine (as Refn and Gosling intended), that these are the songs Driver chooses because of how they make him feel about himself, which is the way that most of us listen to our favorite music, which in fact tells as much about a person as any dialogue passage could ever do. The one song that’s repeated throughout Drive, “A Real Hero” by College featuring Electric Youth, seems to be the most indicative of Driver’s inner thoughts, since he sure doesn’t speak them aloud.
Right there’s another thing to love, the performances. Ryan Gosling seems like such a canny dude, he seems smart and well-adjusted enough to not crave being a movie star, even as he’s clearly got the required talent and charisma. If Ryan Gosling becomes a major star, it’ll be because enough people saw Drive. His character says the bare minimum, speaking mostly through his actions and as previously noted, his iTunes shuffle. I’m a Clint Eastwood man. I respect the hell out of that. I also read in an interview that one of Gosling’s main sources of inspiration for the role was Prince as “The Kid” in Purple Rain. That, I don’t just respect. That, I goddamn adore. And I can see it!
I’ve also become a huge fan of Bryan Cranston, due to his tremendous work on Breaking Bad, the best drama on American television today, by a long shot. If you listen to the subtle voice work he does in Drive, as a Valley veteran — so different from New Mexico’s Walter White – you’ll see what a great actor he is. Cranston has a relatively small role, but a pivotal one: His character, Shannon, is the more [necessarily] talkative partner to Driver, and the one who humanizes him to Irene in the first place. He’s also the character, I believe, who starts off the interesting motif in this movie of characters describing how they met each other — Shannon describes how he first met Driver, Standard describes how he first met Irene, Bernie Rose describes how he first met Nino — for a movie that doesn’t overdo it on the dialogue, it sure is telling where they decide to distribute their exposition.
And let’s talk about that pair, Ron Perlman as Nino and Albert Brooks as Bernie. They’re both playing Brooklyn Jews, and fairly stereotypical ones at that — the wannabe-Italian who runs his operation out of a pizza joint in a San Fernando Valley strip mall, and the movie producer (who sets up a pivotal confrontation at a Chinese restaurant, for Pete’s sake). Being one of that tribe, I never love to see Jewish bad guys, but these guys are so authentic and so damn fascinating that I’ll allow it. It helps that they’re badass as all hell. Perlman is a veteran character actor who can do the monstrous thug thing in his sleep (though I hope he doesn’t, for Mrs. Perlman’s sake), but Brooks is something of a revelation. He’s scary! Look at the poster below, where he looks like John C. Reilly’s evil twin. There’s something great about when comedians play villains in serious movies. It almost always seems to work. Why? That’s a question to ponder for another time, but meanwhile, see this movie and see a truly unique bad-guy performance.
There’s plenty more to admire about Drive, but at a certain point it’s time for me to shut up and insist you see the movie. Movies like this one demand to be seen theatrically, where you can get lost in the sound and the big picture, and besides, a movie this good deserves your hard-earned shekels. If you don’t love it on first watch, as some people who have seen it don’t, give it a minute to percolate. Drive is the kind of movie that is absorbing to watch, but takes on a second life once it seeps into your mind. It grows in potency the more you think about it. Kind of like a memory. Like I said, Drive didn’t actually happen, except it totally happened.