Friday, September 16, 2011

Drive (2011)

James Sallis's 2005 novella DRIVE is a stripped down, minimalist story about a stunt driver who acts as a freelance wheelman for crews pulling heists in and around Los Angeles. Sallis's clipped prose is not simply as sharp and polished as a switchblade, it's also working in the service of a narrative that is nonlinear and elliptical. This is not minimalism in the vein of Cain or Carver; it feels more like a hardboiled narrative poem written by someone with too much caffeine in his system. It's easy to understand why the book was such a hit in Europe, especially in France where noir appreciation was born.

Which brings us to Nicolas Winding Refn's new adaptation of DRIVE starring Ryan Gosling as the unnamed driver (simply called Driver in the book). Refn and his screenwriter Hossein Amini have changed a lot, streamlining the story by condensing the action while also adding supporting characters to flesh things out. This film is, in fact, a very loose adaptation of the novel. What the filmmakers have kept and captured perfectly from Sallis is the central character's isolation and self-possession (captured perfectly by Gosling, an actor whose aura of autonomy is his defining characteristic). Driver is a man of large silences punctuated only by brief bursts of utilitarian dialog. "If I drive for you," he informs a would-be partner "you give me a time and a place. I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes I'm yours no matter what."

We're introduced to his skills in a breathless opening scene in which Driver ferries two stick-up men away from a robbery while outrunning--and outwitting--a police dragnet. It's a fantastic set piece that establishes this man at the height of his power in the only arena he knows. A smart and exciting way to set up the film, it's also something of a high-speed lament for the general decline we've seen in the quality of chase scenes over the last fifteen years or so. Refn understands that a great chase scene is part race and part chess match.

Into Driver's isolated world comes a young woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan) with a sweet son named Benicio (Kaden Leos). Irene's husband, Standard (Oscar Issac) is in jail, and she and the boy are obviously lonely. She and Driver start to see each other--if not romantically, then emotionally intimate at least. It's hard to say what passes between them because they say so little to each other. In her sweet faced way, Irene is as quiet as Driver. The most touching scene in the film comes after Irene has put Benicio to bed. She and Driver say goodnight and their eyes lock and stay locked and they both smile at the warmth they generate together.

Then Standard comes home from the joint. He's better than we might expect. There is a tense moment when he first meets Driver and suspects, without ever quite saying anything, that something might have happened between his wife and this man, but he makes a kind of tentative piece with it, even inviting Driver over of dinner. Besides, Standard has bigger problems to worry about. There some guys from prison who want some money he owes them. They're willing to let him work it off pulling a heist. Driver, instantly and correctly, sizes up Standard for the heist and finds him lacking. Fearing for Irene and the boy, he offers his services for free.

This being noir, things turn to shit but quick. Of the plot complications from here on out, the less said the better. It will do to say that the last hour of the film grows increasingly violent as Driver navigates a maze of lowlifes and gangsters, battling would-be assassins and sniffing out double-crosses, all in an effort to protect Irene and Benicio.

The film is an odd mix of styles. On one hand, it maintains the less-said-the-better approach of the book. Our two main characters spend most of the film acting with their eyes. Since Gosling and Mulligan are two of our best and most expressive actors (no one in movies right now has a better smile than Carey Mulligan), the film can allow its center to be still and quiet. On the margins, however, it gives us a rich supporting gallery of verbose blowhards like Driver's mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston), and the shady businessman Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his even shadier partner Nino (Ron Perlman). These guys never shut up, unreeling long profanity-rich speeches. And while the film itself feels in some ways like a seventies-era Steve McQueen car flick, it is scored like an early eighties Michael Mann movie (and the titles are MIAMI VICE pastel pink).

Spiritually, if not stylistically, it is a brother to Anton Corbijn's THE AMERICAN (released this time last year) which starred George Clooney as a near-silent assassin living in Europe. Both films take American genre pieces (the hitman flick and the heist flick), peel them of their genre trappings, and reinterpret them through a sensibility that places the character at the forefront. One can't help but think of something like BOB LE FLAMBEUR. Jean-Pierre Melville would, I think, have been proud to make a movie like DRIVE.

Ultimately, however, DRIVE is its own film. It's neither ashamed of nor beholden to its genre roots, but neither does it seem awed by any arthouse predecessor. It's an original creation, brooding and fast, hyper-violent and touchingly romantic. It's a hell of a movie.

*One quibble: after you see the film, please explain to me why Driver dons the weird movie mask when he goes to take care of Nino. It's a great visual, but logically it doesn't make any sense to me.

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