“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.