‘Drive’: Machine Versus Horse

IMDb / Ebert
Rating: Recommended
Alternate JW Title: ‘Hero Story

The opening sequence of ‘Drive’ had me thinking all my expectations about the film were correct. The Chromatics’ ‘Tick Of The Clock’ kicked things off, setting the tone with its confident, sinister, minimalist rhythm, with a telephone conversation laying out the terms of the agreement and a splendid pan across a barren room out onto the street lights below. A helicopter shot showed Los Angeles at night from above, sources of yellow light illuminating the city like controlled balls of flame, establishing LA as a character like Michael Mann’s ‘Collateral’ did. The initial getaway job played out like a scene from ‘Driver’, a ten-year-old PlayStation game: all rough atmosphere, near collisions and police radio sounds. The whole film was going to follow in the same vein: a dimly lit, pulsating thrill ride through city streets and bad deals.

What I hadn’t picked was that ‘Drive’, and the nameless hero played by Ryan Gosling, would instead be cut from the same poncho cloth as the great Westerns. Throughout this opening sequence, and for much of the film, he is as silent and imposing as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name; he even chews on a toothpick with the same brooding intensity. In the film’s bare-bones plot (which is little more than an accessory on which to hang a combination of allegories, images and music), Gosling’s driver appears from nowhere, changes everybody’s lives forever and then rides off into the sunset. There are good guys and bad guys, in that the bad guys must do bad and the good guys must try to do good.

Refn’s camera is almost fetishistic in its appraisal of Gosling. He is allowed to leave his chiselled features virtually motionless in many scenes, simply present and immaculate for our appreciation. He’s shot from low angles when driving or doing violence, the skills he has honed well enough to be his vocation, and from high angles when sharing scenes with Carey Mulligan, the woman who steals his heart. In place of a poncho, he has a distinctive jacket that he continues wearing even when it is covered with blood. These stylistic choices establish the driver as a hero, which is the chief purpose of the film (which, again, reminds me of Westerns more than any other genre).

This is what makes the central element of an extremely effective soundtrack – indeed, the film would not be nearly as interesting without it – so interesting. College’s ‘A Real Hero’ plays twice during the film, once during the sweet ‘getting to know you’ scenes between Gosling, Mulligan and Mulligan’s son, and then again at the film’s conclusion. The lyrics, over an unforgettable synth motif, repeat over and over:

A real human being
And a real hero

Gosling is certainly a clear hero, a classic Good Guy of few words driven to do the right thing to the right people and the wrong thing to the wrong people. Virtually the moment he sets eyes on Mulligan, one gets a sense he will protect her to the death – which he does, to all intents and purposes. Though a getaway driver, aiding criminals on a regular basis, his rule of only giving them five minutes of his time gives him a moral footing above that of his employers; he simply drives, until confronted with circumstances that force him to either flee or kill the ones who wish to kill him and the other Good Guys first. Being a hero, he faces his responsibility. He kills.

But Gosling’s driver is not a real human being. He’s a character in a film, as starkly as any character I can remember in recent memory. It’s because he is such an obvious, perfectly troubled, archetypal hero that he is not a real human being. A trick of a film called ‘Drive’ is that it leaves you wanting to believe its central character’s purpose was to drive, that cars gave him meaning and purpose, but they are merely a tool he uses on his heroic path. As are a hammer, the heel of his boot and a very sharp knife. The most human moments he has are those shared with Mulligan and her son, but these exist only to deepen his mythical status as a hero.

Indeed, Mulligan is the only truly human figure in the film. The mobsters, chiefly those played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, are also archetypal Bad Guys or antagonists; they serve their own evil ends, gaining from others’ misfortune and eliminating anyone who gets in their way. Mulligan’s son, too, is unrealistic, a child with little purpose of his own other than to be offered a father figure in Gosling. Mulligan, however, lives and breathes every second of her performance as if it were true. She flirts awkwardly with Gosling and feels shame when he finds she’s kind of been leading him on. Her face demonstrates all the emotion of a young, conflicted woman.

One scene makes the contrast between the two characters and their respective world absolutely clear. As Gosling apologises for his involvement in an act that has changed Mulligan’s life, she slaps him – and immediately shrinks, looking down at the ground, scarcely able to contain her anger but dreadfully ashamed to have expressed it with violence. A stranger intrudes, and after Mulligan and Gosling reconnect with a time-stopping kiss – a bridge between their two worlds – Gosling brutally murders the stranger in front of her. She recoils in horror. As far as I can remember, they do not see each other again; Mulligan’s path leads to a continued life in the real world, while Gosling’s leads to heroic duty and death.

But he doesn’t die – at least, not that we get to see. Like Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, or – even more so – like Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, he ensures the heroine’s survival and then disappears. His function is almost machine-like, reminiscent also of the T-1000 in ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’. (You get the point. Film hero. Not human being.)

I guess this makes Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ a strange kind of character study – not of a believable person, but of a film archetype most notable in Westerns. It certainly isn’t the all-driving, slow-moving actioner I was expecting – and it is much better for it. It’s growing in my estimations with each passing hour since I left the cinema, when I usually tend to revise down my opinion after getting past the initial adrenaline rush of seeing a film on the big screen.

Two things to note before you go in:

1) With a film so caught up in genre concerns as this, the suspension of disbelief is essential, as is a willingness to forget whatever importance you place on plotting. The plot of ‘Drive’ is a framework for the exploration of genre ideas; in fact, there’s enough in there that I wouldn’t be surprised if other viewers read the film along different genre lines than I did.

2) The few scenes of violence in this film are completely visceral and brutal, mostly carried out with analogue implements to make it that much more tactile. You will likely flinch. Just remember: it’s only a movie.

Half Nelson (2006) (E)

IMDb / Cale / Sragow
Written by Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden
Directed by Ryan Fleck

Traditionally, drug addicts in the movies are dealers or unemployed: figures on the margins of society physically and intellectually. They are certainly not people in positions of authority or importance. The protagonist of Half Nelson is Daniel Dunne, an inner-city high school teacher who smokes crack in the bathroom after coaching his basketball team after school. As such, this film offers the most mature depiction of drug addiction I’ve seen in movies. Dan is a real person, with real strengths and failings. He knows how his drug problem limits him, but he can’t be bothered to do something about it – or perhaps he doesn’t know how.

The film focuses on Dan’s relationship with Drey, a girl in his class who catches him slumped inside a toilet cubicle one afternoon at school. Drey lives with her single mother, a paramedic who works long hours, so Drey spends a lot of time hanging out with Frank, a drug dealer who consequently is wealthier than most of the community they live in. Frank has sold to Dan, and when Dan sees how Frank is taking Drey under his wing, he moves to intervene despite being in no real position to tell someone to stay away from drugs. It gives nothing away to say that she does eventually spurn Frank’s enterprise, and that this is a direct result of Dan’s actions, but certainly not in the way you’d expect.

This is typical of a film that doesn’t reach for anything beyond telling simple truths about normal people. Lofty ideas such as the current state of drug abuse in America, the battle between teachers and high school students of different races, or the problems of middle American families are avoided, but in the course of telling its story the film touches on all of these in some way or another. Instead of delving in and searching for answers, it succinctly shows what’s going on and leaves you to think about it. What I’d give to be offered such rich opportunities for thought every time I watch a movie, to have spoonfeeding struck from Hollywood conventions… some hope.

For example, we do get to kind of see where Dan’s problem stems from in a five minute sequence covering a night back home having dinner with his family. It only hints at the difficult familial relationships Dan has, and the escape drugs will have given him, but most of it is given over to contemplation on the viewer’s part. The movie is about the impact of his problem, not its origin. Fleck has said he was influenced by Altman, and it shows in these scenes in which people may be talking, but what they say isn’t really important: it’s the way the move, the way they sit, the looks on their faces that tell you everything. There’s no proselytizing – it leaves all the thinking up to you.

And you will think. Throughout the film, there are several of these wonderful periods of silence during which there’s so much going on even though nothing of consequence is said or done. It takes great skill to make scenes like these work. You have to make the audience forget they’re watching a movie and get them to live in the characters’ minds for the duration, and Fleck does it like he’s made a hundred movies (this is in fact his first). He achieves this not just through a great script, but by shooting the right thing in each scene to make sure its dramatic intent is understood. Like when Drey is having burgers with Frank, and Frank gets up and does the chicken walk, but the camera stays with Drey and her reaction. It’s another small moment that just works because we understand that Drey is what matters here.

Frank is the antagonist, I suppose, but he isn’t a bully or a thief, which is yet another of the film’s pleasant surprises. He’s a bad influence on Drey, but only in terms of the path he’s leading her down, not really in attitude. It’s a socially unacceptable path that could lead to hurt, and Dan feels that he must do something about it because he’s probably the only one who can, but how do you do that when your weekly budget includes $50 for crack & coke? There’s an incredible scene in which Dan confronts Frank without any real plan of attack, and what ensues will surprise any viewer.

Ryan Gosling plays Dan. He was nominated for an Oscar, and he probably should’ve won (though haven’t yet seen Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland). His is a performance of outstanding skill: subtle, understated, deeply felt and understood. He spends a lot of time brooding, but offers several moments of delight in his interactions with the kids. Then there’s newcomer Shareeka Epps as Drey, who is stunning in a role that calls for her to seem strongly independent yet vulnerable at the same time. Special mention should go to Anthony Mackie as Frank, who avoids caricature and gives us one of the most convincing opposing forces in recent history. Yeah, the whole cast is great, from these lead players to the smallest, single-line role. The set must have been a relaxed place of much laughter and creativity.

I’ve run out of steam. Just see it. I’ve watched it three times in a week, and I’ll probably watch it a couple more times before moving on to something else. It has everything I ask for from a film. (Except explosions. I’ll hopefully get those from Transformers and The Bourne Ultimatum.)