Thursday, September 22, 2011

"A Real Human Being, and A Real Hero"

The disassociated, loner hero is a trope familiar to a wide array of historical periods, genres, and nationalities across cinema. James Dean in his red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause, Jean-Paul Belmondo's disconnected whirl through Paris in Breathless, Marlon Brando's struggle to establish his conscience in On the Waterfront, the minimalist assassin of Melville's Le Samourai -- these lonely men are just a few who awake our own sense of humanity through their recognition of their own failings.

In an American cinema of heroes gifted supernatural or highly expensive means of expelling the city of its woes and restoring a romanticized status quo to the world, "Drive" isn't just a breath of fresh air -- it's a slap in the face. Not only is it gorgeously filmed and meticulously crafted, it is at once full of despair, romance, and existential longing. It has the power to feel devastating and transcendental, excessive and minimalist.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who won Director honors at this year's Cannes film festival (and may be best known State-side for his Tom Hardy-starring psych-trip "Bronson"), takes to the streets of Los Angeles with Ryan Gosling as his "Man With No Name," Driver. Driver is a Hollywood stunt driver by day, a getaway-driver-for-hire by night. He lacks a voice and an identity -- a mode of expressing himself -- and is all but married to the cars he drives.

In a thrilling, nearly wordless opening sequence that follows Driver's meticulous getaway from the cops in downtown Los Angeles, Refn lays the groundwork for his craft. The lighting flows in oranges and blues, cascades of streetlights, headlights and neon signs; the camera angles are tight, and preferably inside the car, watching the streets as Driver sees them; the editing and motion of the camera and the focal planes are all purposeful (one might say "driven") to appropriately escalate tension without overplaying the drama; and Los Angeles feels stunningly represented, in that throughout the film it slides in and out of its real geography and its mythic constructs.

Aerial shots show the "one million streets" of Los Angeles lit up at night, and Driver's actions will move him through downtown, the valley, Echo Park, the Los Angeles river, and the Pacific. At the same time, this feeling of fidelity to the space is matched by the characters' tangential connection to the mythmaking power of institutional Hollywood. Not only is Driver is a working stuntman, his mentor Shannon used to sell cars to the movies, menacing thugs are one-time shlock producers, and even makeup artistry gets a shining (or, shocking) moment or two.

The impetus for the action in "Drive" is culled from familiar American filmmaking traditions: Driver is woken from his existential slumber by Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor who he befriends until her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison. Trying to help Standard end his debts and ensure Irene's happiness, Driver agrees to help with a pawn shop robbery. Things take an alternately predictably and unpredictably violent turn, unveiling a much more complex series of mob connections and a pervasive violent undercurrent to the city's gleam and grit.

Part of what makes Refn's staging feel so immaculate are the ways he chooses to represent time. Nearly every shot in the film can be associated with Driver's perspective, and certain moments capitalize on soft focus to help romanticize moments, deep focus to help call attention to the isolation between visual planes, or slow motion to help extend suspense and romance. While slow motion has often been the bane of contemporary action directors (here's looking at you, Zack Snyder), Refn uses it not only tastefully, but artfully. He slows the film down to help us fall in love with images or be stunned by them. Car crashes and romantic embraces feel almost balletic in this landscape.

The violence of the film, of which there is much, has the same approach. While the first half of the film is a romantic ode to self-discovery, the second half is a painful reconciliation with what that awakening can mean. Driver fights for Irene, but not in a didactic way. The film's minimalism makes him a universal crusader, "a real hero" who selflessly calls himself to arms out of necessity. Whether Driver enjoys the violence he ends up performing is something that remains relatively ambivalent (much as a theater experience might be filled with nervous laughter, patrons trying to decide whether the spectacle of it is entertaining or repulsive), which becomes part of the cost of his journey. The tragedy of Driver is his understanding that love and violence are incompatible. They cannot be juxtaposed.

This juxtaposition is what the film does quite provocatively, and quite masterfully. One scene in particular, "the elevator scene" as many refer to it, uses romantic slow motion and fast, quick cutting for its violent explosion. The incongruity of cinematic styles awaken us to the increasing incongruity of Driver's existence, even as he is discovering a purpose to his existence.

"Drive" is not a film for those looking for cheap thrills, and its beautiful stylization is matched by a narrative minimalism that may exasperate many movie-goers raised on intensified continuity (or what my colleague Matthias Stork would call "Chaos Cinema"). The chaos of "Drive" derives thankfully not from its aesthetic appropriations, but from the internal strife of its protagonist, a strife that is never given over to monologue or sentimentality. Rather, Refn directs the film like a poker player with an inscrutable tell: once we think we've figured him out, he throws something else at us, without ever overstepping the design of his film.

It's a genre-driven critique of violent heroism, one that acknowledges its debt to the globe- and decade-spanning films it draws influences from while feeling wholly original. That originality, moreso than the bloodbath, are what's really exhilarating about "Drive." Watching it is like sitting in the passenger seat and knowing your driver is in complete control -- even when he trips into triple-digit speed.

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