“Stand back. This could get ugly.”

Ok. I don’t like to do it, but I have to admit I was wrong. I misjudged Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. After seeing it a 2nd time, having had a few more days to think about it and having talked it over some with people who liked it better than I did, I realize I misinterpreted the movie rather badly. I’m not pulling a complete 180 on my opinion – I already liked it to a point – but I have to retract a few comments I made about it that came in part from what turns out to be my mischaracterization of the film.

For starters, I labeled it a car chase picture wanting to be an art film which wasn’t as good at either as it could’ve/should’ve been. The thing is, it doesn’t want to be an art film at all. It’s has a few stylistically artsy pretensions, but the movie isn’t that inscrutable. In fact, Drive pretty much wears its intentions on its silver satin sleeves where I should’ve picked up on them from the start. Drive is really just a moody, slick, entertaining and somewhat fevered bad boy romance turned slightly on its head to the point it’s almost a tragedy. End of story.

(***Spoiler Alert*** The only way to properly address my issues with the film and to correct them is to engage in spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to know plot details, don’t read any further)

Romances for decades have revolved around bad boys who turn out to be misunderstood gentlemen with hearts of gold. Ryan Gosling’s character, Driver, wants to be just that type of character and he’s drawn to the innocent, yet slightly damaged Irene (Carey Mulligan who is much better here than I originally gave her credit for) and her innocent and undamaged little boy, Benicio. The problem is, Driver really is a bad boy and, while his intentions might be well motivated – he really does want to fix and protect Irene – he’s quite possibly a psychopath underneath his handsome, stoic exterior. He’s a Travis Bickle who keeps the bad side of himself tamped down with a carefully controlled lifestyle and jobs that depend on rigid principles and basic sets of rules. Professionally, he’s a control freak, but when he’s let out of his cage to wander the real world of human emotion… watch out.

The first definitive clue he’s nuts comes when he calmly offers to kick someone’s teeth down their throats despite some very mild to non-existent provocation. Next comes his sudden and previously unseen deftness at dispatching bad guys in the fateful motel room. Finally, there’s the turning point of the entire film: the elevator scene where the two warring forces inside of Driver come to a… er… head. Fusing a moment of tenderness with a drawn out moment of shocking violence, Irene finally sees Driver for what he really is and he sees that she sees it. He realizes he’s no good for her and at that point, tellingly, he drifts out of view of the camera and out of Irene’s life forever.

The part that makes Drive more interesting is that Driver remains compelling even as we discover that he’s a monster. His story doesn’t end when his romance with Irene bleeds out on an elevator floor. He knows he can’t have her, but he still needs to do right by her even though he knows he will never benefit from the self-sacrificing actions he’s about to take. This leads him on a collision course with Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), another thug who’d rather live a calm, civilized life but is all too quick to violence when he’s put into a corner. As the end credits roll over the dreamscape of Los Angeles however, there’s no doubt which character was ultimately the more noble.

Now that Driver’s character has snapped into focus for me, most of the perceived problems I had with the film (It’s a character study where the main character is a cipher! There are too many extraneous plot elements! Carey Mulligan is too boring! It’s all style and no substance!) have melted away. I honestly did not understand or believe what motivated Driver from one scene to the next and I found the resulting violence to be unnecessary and therefore off-putting. Driver makes complete sense to me now and with the exception of one murder (Blanche, for those of you keeping score at home), I think each scene was absolutely necessary to show the world Driver lived in inside his own head and to expose the monster he really was.

Furthermore, though it’s still unfortunate that Christina Hendricks was wasted on a mostly nothing character, my contention that she’d have made a better Irene than Mulligan was flat out wrong. She would’ve made a more interesting (sexier, more dangerous) character than Mulligan, but it would’ve been the wrong character for this movie. Mulligan played her part just right: decent but a little bit scuffed. Driver was not drawn to fallen woman Blanche as he was to Irene and to switch parts would’ve made a different movie.

One of my other minor issues had to do with the sort of dangling stock car racing plot thread, but this allowed the smartest of the many changes the script made from the book: it gave more screen time to Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks.

I still don’t think Drive is an especially deep film. It’s often heavy handed (particularly some of the music cues), it apes a little too hard the styles of other directors (especially Michael Mann), I’d have still really liked one more (bigger) car chase, and it won’t make spitting distance of my best of the 2011, but it still works quite nicely.

There. I said it. I was wrong.


42 Responses to “Pulling a U-turn on ‘Drive’”

  1. Wow, this welcome re-evaluation has yielded one of the most thought-provoking essays I’ve seen on the film yet. I can’t count the times I have reversed myself over the years either for better or for worse, but with you I know it’s extremely rare. In the years I’ve been coming to LIC I can remember only once, (with Pixar’s WALL-E) where you improved the rating. Your examination of the film’s stylistics here is quite persuasive, and while you didn’t go the full distance in the turn around, you have acknowledged what you feel you may have given short shrift to initially.

    In any case I greatly welcome this second look, and applaud you for offering up such great writing in defense of it.

    BTW, I know you and just about everyone else saw Mann all over this. Did you also see a bit of David Lynch, as I did?

  2. Sam,

    I saw more Lynch than I did Mann. And I saw the bands The Cure and New Order in this thing. I think the Mann bit is being overplayed.

  3. I think I got most of this on the first viewing, and I still hate it, really. Most of the things you’re finding worth in (the romance, the contrasting psychopathy) are elements I found either cringe-worthily sentimental or deliriously out of character (really, a car-chase thriller that wants to be an art film would’ve been much more appreciated). Furthermore, I can’t really see any chemistry between Mulligan and Gosling to support any belief in the bad-boy romance theory, myself. If anything, I saw more sparks between Gosling and her kid (no, not those kinds of sparks), which made me think of his Driver for a time as less a fully fledged romantic adult and more of a damaged manchild who identifies with the kid. In a sense, between Gosling’s robotic performance, bloodlusty violence and his time spent with a young mother and her child, I feel like we have something of a remake of “Terminator 2”, right down to the drive down an LA aquaduct.

    As for Mann– there’s two clear as hell nods to “Manhunter” in the film, one of which you now choose as a pic to head this article (the other, of course, being the supermarket bit). Beyond that, the movie has a lot of commonality with “Thief”, right down to the psychopathic crook who wants to settle down, but turns away at the first sign of heat around the corner, and never compromises.

  4. Boy, Bob Clark is making the internet rounds spewing all kinds of contrarian hate against this film. The fact that few if any are listening or agree seems to count for very little. Nearly every observation in his rebuttal rings false to these eyes.

  5. I think Mulligan and Gosling have chemistry, but, even if they didn’t, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, as the characters barely know one another and are tentatively circling each other as a fantasy “maybe if I went this way in life” indulgence.

    And Mann, for the record, is incredibly sentimental in the “last of the pure macho men” ideology that pervades his films. I don’t get why he’s the only one who is allowed to try that idea – which is nowhere near new with him – on for size.

  6. LOL. it’s definitely an aggressively subtle movie. you make some good points though, but it is certainly a stylistic film. i liked it but i like see your points as well.

  7. Chuck, it’s probably because his sentimentality is less immediate, and has a different M.O. than something like “Drive”, with the protagonist trying to gain not only a lover (which is constant in Mann’s stuff, yes) but is moreover trying to secure for himself a paternal role with Mulligan and her kid. He’s less romancing her than he is playing house. Now, there’s precedent for this in Mann’s work, but there it’s either about protecting a pre-existing family dynamic (“Manunter” and “The Insider”) or in the case of “Thief” winds up being a rather savage indictment of it. Refn comes close to mocking the familial yearning of his protagonist, but in the end, it comes off as sincere and dopey.

  8. I agree with your interpretation of the Driver, but he’s not a psychopath so much as a sociopath. This is a guy who’s barely capable of maintaining human relationships. Even around “friends” like Shannon (who appears to be the only friend he has), he holds himself at a distance. When he reaches out to Irene, it’s on his terms and in his turf — a drive down the Los Angeles River — not her’s. And when he lashes out in violence, it’s not very well-planned, at least not at first. He has a violent streak, but his control over it is tenuous at best.

    I know that I’m arguing semantics here, but there is a difference between the two disorders.

    I don’t think it matters whether you consider this an “art film” or not, but Refn made very conscious decisions about the characterizations, style and tone of this film. Refn is taking the framework of your standard car chase film and amping everything up to 11.

    In your standard car chase film, the protagonist typically ends up killing or threatening somebody, but it’s rarely quite so explicit as in Drive. By emphasizing the violence at the expense of the actual chase, I think Refn is trying to make an argument that all these silent types are much more gruesome characters than the typical action lover gives them credit for.

    In that sense — the sense that Refn is reinterpreting a genre to tell a lesson — Drive has definite “arty” pretensions, but shouldn’t all films?

  9. WJ, my understanding has always been that the two terms essentially refer to the same type of individuals. The key difference being that the sociopath label comes out of sociological theory and the psychopath one out of psychological theory. Neither is a distinct disorder according to the DSM classification system, which comes closest to diagnosing psychopathy/sociopathy in its antisocial personality disorder. Psychologists assess psychopathy using Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist in preference to the DSM diagnostic criteria because the latter fails to discriminate between antisocial behaviour exhibited by many offenders and the sub-population who behave in ways that more clearly evidence psychopathic traits.

    There may be one or more theorists that argue the distinction you describe but it has not been embraced by the psychological community.

  10. My take on “psychopath” is that it is different than “sociopath” but neither are the technical terms in use anymore. They’re both interchangeable among us non-professionals to denote people who have a few screws loose.

    Sam, on a surface level I still saw more Mann and that 80s period of film that Mann represents with the Tangerine Dream-esque score. Below the surface it gets more Lynchy for sure.

    Bob, it’s not about the chemistry between the two characters (there was plenty by the way), but about a fantasy both characters share. He fancies himself the hero riding in on a white horse. She fancies him the dark anti-hero who will nonetheless save the day. He’s dark alright, but that comes at a high cost. I didn’t say it was a bad boy romance, I said it took that idea and turned it on its head a little. Two totally different things.

    Sorry it took so long to get your comment through Candice, I was suffering through the remake of Straw Dogs!

    WJ, as I said, I think the film has some arty pretensions stylistically (mostly enjoyable ones), but what I meant is that it’s not and isn’t intended to be some inscrutable art film that needs to be decoded to unlock layers of meaning. If it was supposed to be that, then it is a failure because as I’ve realized, it’s all right there on the screen.

  11. Psychopath is very much the technical term in use among forensic and correctional psychologists who assess offenders for psychopathic traits. Most Western judicial systems accept the scientific validity of high PCL scores as a predictive measure of violent recidivism risk.

  12. Wikipedia mislead me… again!

  13. Chemistry must be a subjective thing, because honestly, all I saw between them was a series of staring contests. It’s still just a bunch of ciphers inviting projection, as far as I can see. They’re molded as archetypes, with scant definition or development to set them apart. Granted, I can enjoy this sort of thing sometimes (“Attack of the Clones” has a bad boy romance turned on its head, too) but here, all I see is static.

  14. Sartre and WJ: Here is something I found:

    There is some debate about whether there is a meaningful difference between sociopaths and psychopaths. The DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychologists) lists both under the heading of Anti-social Personality Disorder, and there are different schools of thought on whether they should be treated as distinct. Psychopaths and sociopaths both apparently lack a conscience. Both will engage in behavior that harms others with no feeling of guilt or remorse, and rarely consider the risks to others implicit in their actions. They have an intellectual understanding of pro-social emotions, but seem to feel no emotional bonds with others. The result is that they can seem like perfectly decent and reasonable human beings in most situations, but can take bizarrely inappropriate actions to satisfy perceived insults, fantasies, or mere whims.
    Those psychologists who make a distinction between the two usually do so on the basis of organization. Sociopaths are seen as disorganized and rash, making extreme responses to normal situations. They lack impulse control. Psychopaths, by contrast, are highly organized, often secretly planning out and fantasizing about their acts in great detail before actually committing them, and sometimes manipulating people around them.

  15. Glad to see you’re still missing the point staring you in the face, Bob. Carry on!

  16. Craig, I get the point. But getting the point and actually enjoying it are different things.

  17. Bob, I was waiting to see how you’d work the new Star Wars movies into it.

  18. It’s good to get it off the chest, Chuck. If what Mulligan and Gosling did is what counts as “acting”, I don’t know what to say.

  19. Sam, the PCL is the gold standard for assessing psychopathy, I’ve used it myself many times as offender risk assessment is an area of expertise. It’s validity and reliability is well established across numerous international studies. It identifies impulsivity as an assessment item for psychopathy. All I can say is that the distinction some make between the labels is not grounded in current best practice.

  20. Bob, my irritation is not with your shtick of taking a bat to sacred cows (though you do it so often it plays as just that, a shtick), as there are a number of taken-for-granted filmmakers and films I don’t care for myself (Terrence Malick, for one). But your comments often have an “I don’t like it because I don’t like it, the end” vibe that’s basically impossible to engage with.

    So, please, how does Attack the Clones turn a bad boy romance on its head, how are the two actors in that film more expressive than Gosling and Mulligan, and, what, precisely, the fuck does Star Wars have to do with Drive?

  21. Natalie Portman digs a dude who pulls a My Lai after his mom gets raped & killed, and then gets choked to death by him while she’s pregnant. The dude also digs cars and shares a picnic with her, though not by an aqueduct. They’re more expressive, but my point there was that I’m admitting a matter of personal preference. One man’s AOTC is another man’s “Drive”.

    I’ll admit Chuck that it’s something of a shtick (I only mentioned it in passing before, and frankly thought better of it, but didn’t really care enough to go back and edit while I could), but to that end I find all personal sacred cows to be shticks, and I keep this one up because it’s one that I believe in wholeheartedly, and one that precious few agree with. Malick’s a filmmaker I don’t care for myself, either, though I did go into “Tree of Life” with an open mind and wound up enjoying it for the most part (more than a lot of Malick fans, apparently).

    Anyway, I’ve actually tried to be as expressive as possible in my dislike for the film to go beyond “I don’t like it because I don’t like it”. When enough people like a film, I find that it doesn’t really matter how much you express your misgivings with it, because the stuff you don’t like about it is either stuff they like very much, or have already come to terms with and looked past. So it’s hard to engage with on either side, really.

  22. Well, Mr. Clark, I have always enjoyed your writings, but your taste in movies is another matter.

    Yeah, you hated Drive.

    You also have often expressed no use whatsoever for Alfred Hitchcock, Terrence Malick and Pixar. But that’s only scratching the surface. As I recall you aren’t the biggest Kubrick fan either. If you wish to be taken more seriously you’ll need to speak in far less rigid and dismissive terms. But if you are seking to be the class contrarian, as some are claiming, well then that’s another matter.

  23. Sartre: I hear ya and don’t doubt your knowledge in this area. What you say about the PCL would be almost impossible to refute. The discussion did motivate me to hit the search engine though. Ha!

  24. Frank– “Tree of Life” has opened me to the possibilities of Malick. I might revisit him in more substance, as I did with Altman after discovering “Secret Honor”. Kubrick, though? I’ve always been a fan of his, but I’m certainly not in discovery mode for him, anymore. Hitchcock– I think he’s tremendously overrated, especially in regards to the perennially overlooked Lang, but he’s a peerless craftsman and has at least three and a half movies that I enjoy without reservation (“Rope”, “Rear Window”, “Vertigo” and “Psycho” until it shifts away from Norman Bates). Pixar– I’m just waiting for American animation to grow up, and catch up with anime, frankly. Great, we have our own second-rate Ghibli. Now let’s see us grow a second-rate Gainax, Madhouse or Production I.G. Or better yet– something both original and mature that doesn’t just go for laughs.

    As for “Drive” I hated it, I explained why, no more rigidly than any other low opinions I’ve read for films in the past.

  25. Bob: “Getting the point and actually enjoying it are different things.”

    Exactly. Your enjoyment of Drive is completely beside the point of whether it is or isn’t a spin on a bad boy romance just as whether there was or wasn’t actual chemistry between the two characters is also beside the point. I don’t care whether you liked it or not, but you’re making statements to support your dislike that aren’t rooted in reality.

    Congratulations for continuing to miss the point even as you claim that you got it. You’re a mobeus strip of trollery.

  26. Craig, much as you disagree on the film, my dislike is absolutely rooted in reality. As I said before, I’m seeing that most of the aspects that I’m criticizing (among them the bad-boy spin or the question of chemistry vis-a-vis the restrained cipher portrayals) are largely things that the film’s supporters hold as stuff they enjoy. We’re mostly seeing the same things, and disagreeing on whether or not we think they work.

  27. Craig: “Drive is really just a moody, slick, entertaining and somewhat fevered bad boy romance turned slightly on its head to the point it’s almost a tragedy.”

    Bob: “I can’t really see any chemistry between Mulligan and Gosling to support any belief in the bad-boy romance theory”

    Craig: “It’s not about the chemistry between the two characters…but about a fantasy both characters share”

    Bob: (paraphrasing) Yeah, but there’s no chemistry

    Craig: (paraphrasing) I just said that’s not the point

    Bob: (paraphrasing) The point is I didn’t like it

    Craig: (paraphrasing) No, it’s not.

    (Craig shoots self in face)

  28. Right. So it’s a great turn of the bad-boy conventions because, not in spite, of there not being chemistry? That just falls back int the cipher-trap– if it works for you personally, and you can project your feelings onto them, fine; if you can’t it’s a non-starter. Without finding any genuine on-screen connection between the characters, the fantasy is one the audience has to share with the characters in order for it to function. Which brings me back to the personal preference thing– I can deal with this kind of extra work with a film if it’s really engaging, but that’s just not the case here, for me.

  29. Bob: “It’s a great turn of the bad-boy conventions because, not in spite, of there not being chemistry?”

    If you can find where I said that, I’ll buy you a car.

  30. Hey. I’m paraphrasing.

  31. No you’re not, you’re squeezing everything through the filter of your dislike of the movie. I’m not trying to convince you to like it. All I’m saying in this post is that I thought the movie was one thing which I didn’t like, but I know realize it’s another thing which I’m quite fond of. You said it can’t be this other thing because of some bullshit about chemistry and I said that chemistry was irrelevant because the romance was just fantasy engaged in by both characters…a fantasy that ultimately proved false which is, finally, the whole crux of the movie for me.

  32. And I think I’ve stated repeatedly here that I can understand how people can get into the film, despite the very honest problems I have with it, partly because the approach you’re describing is one I’ve maintained for other films in the past. The fantasy angle is one that can work, but it still depends on the other stylistic and fuctional aspects of the film, and if those fall flat, then the fantasy angle is one that can only really be appreciated intellectually. You’re feeling it, not just understanding it. My larger point is that understanding the work doesn’t necessarily help you emotionally connect with it. Everything you’re describing is stuff that I noted either during or not long after the movie. It’s all well and good, but that doesn’t mean it’s enough.

    I’m not trying to make anybody dislike the film. It’s an acquired taste, just one I’m not willing to put that much effort into to get used to.

  33. I was taught the distinction (granted, in an undergrad psych class) between the psychopaths and sociopaths more or less as Sam outlined them. And, on a purely non-expert level, I believe there is most definitely a difference between the two. As a non-expert, however, I will respectfully remove myself from the semantics debate.

    All apologies, although the comments seem to have taken a sharp left turn from all the semantics since the last time I visited…

  34. A sharp turn into a wall, fault largely mine.

    Funny thing is WJ, I knew there was a distinction between the two words but was unclear on exactly what they were. I consulted wikipedia and came away with bad information… or information that I misunderstood.

  35. I’ve read this discussion of the film as well as a rather lively thread on it over at Wonders in the Dark. Now that I’ve seen the film, I can chime in. To be honest, I’m a bit bored with overintellectualized discussions about which director we “see” in this film and all the hifalutin’ theories and phraseology.

    I think it’s a good film — sometimes very good — by a director who seems to show promise. I thought the 2 leads were good, and — yes — I noticed chemistry. This isn’t Body Heat, for pity’s sake. The way these 2 characters relate — and others, too — is part of the mood style and even themes of the film.

    I’m ambivalent about what Albert Brooks did here — I don’t think I’m quite buying it all the way.

    I can’t pin it down, exactly, but the writing in the last 1/4 of the film disappointed me a bit.

    The first definitive clue he’s nuts comes when he calmly offers to kick someone’s teeth down their throats despite some very mild to non-existent provocation.

    SPOILER ALERT: I interpreted Driver’s reaction as that of his modus operandi: someone trying to keep himself disconnected from a previous job. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the impression, Craig, that you think Driver kills Blanche — I don’t think that’s true.

  36. No I don’t think he kills Blanche, but he would have if he thought he had to.

    Also, I get why he told the guy he was gonna kick his face in, but still, extreme much? It was a flash of implied violence, and you definitely had the sense he was prepared to back it up if need be. Up to that point he’d been a mostly stoic character.

    What is it about Brooks you didn’t like? I heard some others express disappointment with him. Is he just not believable as that type of guy?

  37. Is [Brooks] just not believable as that type of guy?

    I get the feeling at times that he’s not believable — but I catch myself vascillating between whether it’s his acting not working (ie, too much of a stretch for him) or maybe I’m expecting his character to be a certain way.

  38. I thought it was a nice change for Brooks. Even before I warmed up to the movie, he was hands down my favorite part.

    He’s played a jerk before, but I don’t recall him playing a dangerous jerk. he gave the impression here of being somewhat reluctantly violent, but perfectly willing to do whatever he had to do to make things right for himself. As though violence was once a way of life, but he’d grown kind of soft here in sunny Los Angeles.

  39. Albert Brooks was freakin’ scary. (Never thought I’d say that.)

    And no offense intended, but anyone who doesn’t see the chemistry and hope and fear and restraint and heat doing loopty-loops in the gazes Mulligan and Gosling–sorry, but you’re just dead inside. That’s all there is to that. :)

    Craig, I know you had suspension of disbelief issues with the elevator scene, but for me that was the scene of the film. There was so much packed into that scene in such an efficiency of action and economy of dialogue. When Irene steps off that elevator there are about a dozen emotions warring with each other in the looks they exchange. Masterfully acted and directed. And I bought it.

  40. Oh my issues with it are gone. The whole movie was right there. It’s ridiculous they way it was portrayed (no way that guy wouldn’t have just turned around and plugged them both right then and there), but this was a movie of sensationalized reality and I’m at peace with that.

  41. I just stumbled upon your blog, and enjoy reading your reviews.

    I agree with #2 I see more Lynch than Mann in this film. Also think Refn deliberately intended it to be heavy-handed, feel sentimental, and extreme in romance and violence to the point of absurdity. That way, as Refn said in an interview, the whole film becomes a sort of a fairy tale for Irene, who wants to have some unnamed hero in her otherwise drab life with her husband in prison etc.

    On my first viewing I wasn’t so enthralled by it until I saw it again when it hit me, Refn was really aiming for this kitsch look, sentimental feel to the film.

  42. Thanks for stopping by Christine.

    As you can see, I was also less than overwhelmed my first time. I liked it, but only to a point. Once it clicked for me, it was much more of a wow.

    And yes, they heightened reality and heavy handedness totally worked.

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