September 2011 at the Cambridge Film Festival. In between sentences about his latest film, Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn wolfs down handfuls of popcorn. A director scoffing popcorn is a strange sight to behold. It’s a bit like a priest throwing back communion wine on his day off; an act so banal, you don’t expect it to happen let alone bear witness to it. Aside from the difficulty of discerning what Refn is saying mid-mouthful, the director’s popcorn performance (a known motif in his interview etiquette) is goofily endearing and seems to make a statement about the kind of director he is. Here is a director – 2011’s Best Director at Cannes, no less – with a visible hunger for cinema.

One gets the impression that Refn is a movie buff dressed up as a director, or maybe it’s the other way round. It comes as a surprise, then, to learn Refn wasn’t ‘really conscious of’ the driving movies that came before Drive when making the movie, though he does commend driving films like Vanishing Point as ‘really great cinema’. Then again, it’s not altogether astonishing. For a film called Drive, as many have quite rightly pointed out, there’s not all that much driving. While this comes as a disappointment to some, I see it as a great attribute. Thankfully, Drive doesn’t set out to be another The Fast and Furious film, nor does it need to be fast or furious. Though there are some hot wheels (among other rides, he’s got a 1973 Chevelle and a Chevy Impala at his disposal) and impressive tyre tracks (see Driver’s 360-degree turn in a car chase), driving isn’t glamorized here in the way of Hollywood movies with speeding cars. Ultimately, driving doesn’t steer this plot; it’s not about the car or how fast it goes. It’s about the driver. Driver (Ryan Gosling), the only name he’s given, will be your man for five minutes – a minute either side of that and you’re on your own, goes his superhero saying. A man of few words, on Driver’s behalf, his boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) gives us his brief back-story: the kid showed up in town one day, asking for a job as a mechanic – naturally, he was a natural – and ever since then, he’s been working under Shannon’s wing, quietly going about his business, hunched over car hoods with oil on his brow. Oh, and he drives for the movies. You know, stunts and stuff, but it’s ok, it’s not dangerous or anything; as he tells love interest, Irene (Carey Mulligan), ‘it’s only part time.’ For a spectacular driver, he’s a simple man; ask him who he is, he’ll tell you he’s a driver. But there’s more to Driver than what he does, just as there’s more going on inside the car than there is its exterior. At the start of Drive, the female voice in Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx’s “Nightcall” insists, ‘There’s something inside you, it’s hard to explain’. She sings against a pulpy, impenetrable beat, just getting through the song’s surface as Irene gets under Driver’s thick skin. The lyrics of “A Real Hero”, by College and Electric Youth, the film’s own synth-pop hymn, offer a similar interpretation of Driver: ‘you have proved to be a real human being and a real hero, real human being and a real hero, real human being and a real hero’, she repeats. The song is Driver’s theme tune (every superhero has one); its tinny pulse, like the easy purr of an engine, his heartbeat. There really is something inside Driver. As a car has an engine, a human, even a hero, has a heart.

We first glimpse this underlayer of Driver’s humanity in the smile he flashes to Irene, when she visits the garage where he works with car trouble. He can’t help the smile; though not much seems to, she makes him nervous. Later, when Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns from prison, we see Driver sitting in his room, his hands occupied in nimble work on a car part (a heart part, perhaps), his mind elsewhere as the music pounds from Standard’s welcome home party in the next apartment. The song is “Under Your Spell” by Desire, another synth-pop number with a shuffling beat. ‘I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I do nothing but think of you. You keep me under your spell, you keep me under your spell, you keep me under your spell’, its hypnotic lyrics sing, like much of the film’s soundtrack, what he cannot say. Despite Standard’s arrival, Driver is the kind of man that doesn’t throw a punch at his love’s husband but rather lends him a helping hand; Standard is being blackmailed and, of course, Driver makes it his mission to protect Standard’s loved ones who have become, incidentally, his own. It’s his fatal flaw; at the best of times and at the worst, Driver’s a hero. In the gangster story that emerges here (think Pulp Fiction with cars), Driver increasingly begins to put actions to his emotions. In his most heroic moment, which comes in perhaps one of the greatest emotionally charged elevator scene ever shot, Driver follows Irene into the lift of their building, which they happen to share with  a gun-holding gangster. We see two things, within seconds of each other, in the elevator: first, Driver kissing Irene, softly then rapturously, and then Driver kicking, quite literally, the shit out of the gangster’s head. In mere moments, we see Driver at his most raw, given into love and lust, then ruinous rage. When I asked Refn about this particular scene, and Driver’s symbiotic expressions of love and violence, he suggested that ‘maybe art consists of sex and violence. You can use the same mechanism for both expressions… I try to [shoot] sex, it just ends up really violently!’ In a similar way, there’s a real sleaze attached to the gangster’s murder; it begins violently, but ends up somewhat euphoric. The  gangster’s disfigured face like that of a Francis Bacon figure, his blood and guts sprayed on the lift walls; such visuals are utterly visceral and indulgent, spectacular in their grotesque. All at once, Driver has shown Irene every part of him, even, and especially, the ugliness of being a hero. In this case, the bloody innards of a dead man.

At the time of the interview, having just watched the film and still reeling from the elevator, I found it bizarre when Refn admitted that he ‘spent a lot of time thinking about the Grimm’s fairytales’, which he called ‘the main inspiration for the movie.’ For a film so explicitly violent where a man’s head is stamped into mush, a gangster stabs a fork into another gangster’s eye and a sliced wrist spills blood like overflowing water – hardly the stuff fairytales are made of  – the Grimm connection couldn’t have been further off.  On second thought, however, the connection is unequivocally obvious. As Refn elaborated, Drive ‘starts very pure and then it gets…dark and violent, and all the characters are archetypes: the knight is the driver; Carey Mulligan is the dame in distress; Ron Perlman [who plays thug, Nino] is the evil king; Albert Brooks [who plays another thug, Bernie Rose] is the wizard.’ Also worth a mention here is white trash bad girl, Blanche played by the superb Christina Hendricks. Like the characters who respectively fit the mold of their archetypes, Drive is a warped, almost modern day fairytale – almost, because, like the city in which it’s set and its music (just listen to “Nightcall” again), the film is arguably stuck in the ’80s. Trade in the knight’s horse for a steel-coloured Chevy Impala, swap the knight’s brazen armour for a champagne-coloured jacket emblazoned with a scorpion symbol and you’ve got yourself a Los Angeles love story. On selecting parts of LA to shoot, Refn calls himself ‘a face filmmaker. I just shoot what looks interesting… I just drive around town and I say I like that or I like this…and I just go and shoot it. I didn’t have an agenda… What’s interesting about LA is that it very much looks like an ’80s city, it hasn’t evolved since the ’80s.’ True to the efforts of Refn’s ‘face’ filmmaking, the best views of LA aren’t, predictably, of the city lights at night, from the rooftop of Driver’s building – where, like most superheroes, he goes to answer phone calls – but from inside the car, looking out and under the sun. LA’s golden moment comes when Driver cruises through vast dust tracks with Irene and her son in tow, showing them his favourite drive in LA as he lets Irene a little way into his heart.

One critic called the film ‘an exercise in style’, and in many respects – it’s a driving movie without as much driving; a gangster film with over the top, Tarantinoesque horror; and a Brothers Grimm fairytale without the fairytale ending – Drive is a pulp fiction of sorts. But it is no matter of style over substance. Like Driver, who proves in the duration of an elevator ride that he’s both human and hero, Drive, even at its grittiest, is irrevocably stylised and yet unbearably romantic. The driving’s fast but the pace is slow in this slick thriller. Like the scorpion on the back of Driver’s bloodstained jacket – which he wears, quite unconvincingly, everywhere without a soul pulling him up on it – Drive is, for the most part, a quiet film with a vicious sting in its tail. For those who feel a little cheated by the movie’s title, perhaps Driver would have been a more appropriate title for Drive, a movie that is all about the driver, about a hero with a human inside him. When I asked Refn, why Gosling for the part of Driver, quite simply, he said, ‘Wouldn’t you want to be saved by Ryan Gosling?’ To which I replied, ‘Yes, yes I would.’

5 Responses to “Drive”
  1. Lucy Cantley says:

    Love this article!

  2. Jake Gibson says:

    After reading this and then watching the trailer I have to see this film now.

  3. TomBoy says:

    Love this review… Makes me miss my Mom’s ’68 Impala too.

  4. Nice post. I haven’t seen the film, but can thoroughly recommend the original novel by James Sallis – a man not afraid to take all the pulp stereotypes and stretch them till they snap

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