WARNING: YOU GIVE ME A TIME AND A PLACE, I’LL GIVE YOU SPOILERS
“Drive” is the best Michael Mann movie I’ve seen in years.
Of course it’s directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, an up-and-comer who directed “Bronson” a few years back, from a screenplay by Hossein Amini, who adapted James Sallis’ novel, but Mann’s influence is all over this thing. It’s a bit of the story of “Thief” mixed with the mood of “Collateral.” This is not an insult, by the way. It’s one of the higher compliments I can give.
The movie is a mood alterer. It’s L.A. as dreamworld. The feel you get is of a long drive, where your thoughts just drift away to the hum of the tires on the road. It’s a near silent film with an unexpected soundtrack, an unsettling score, and moments of pure romance and purer violence. Sometimes these moments are right next to each other. The best kiss I’ve seen in the movies in years (in years, ladies) is immediately followed by the hero, the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling), stomping on a guy’s head until the guy doesn’t have a head. Literally.
Driver is a man with three car-related jobs: he works in the garage of Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a man past his prime still looking for his big score; he’s a stunt driver in the movies, a gig Shannon set up for him; and he’s a getaway driver for hire, a pure professional with no attachments to his clients. A la Mann.
The first words we hear in the film are his, and they’re both proposal and philosophy:
“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. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down and I don’t carry a gun. I drive. You understand?”
After those five minutes, he’s gone. You’re on your own.
Do you like those words? Savor them. Because you won’t hear Driver say anything else for another 10-15 minutes of screentime. Driver is so laconic he makes Clint Eastwood’s characters seem like Joe Pesci’s characters.
Initially this annoyed me. Initially I felt there was too much atmosphere and not enough substance. I’m not a fan of cool, or profess to be such, since cool is silent and distant, and the most interesting people I’ve encountered in life are the ones who are most engaged. Who talk. I’m a word man. Driver is not. He’s most definitely cool, with his toothpick in his mouth or tucked behind his ear, and so silent, a man of so few words, that I began to wonder, a half-hour in, if there wasn’t something wrong with him mentally. Was he autistic? And yet, despite all this, by the end of the movie I had absorbed him, or he me. I could feel it as I put on my yellow biking jacket, so similar to his silver racing jacket, and my biking gloves, so similar to his driving gloves, and walked out of the theater immersed in the dreamlike silence of the movie. I imagined I was tough and cool and hard-to-read instead of what I am: a tired 48-year-old in need of a shave and a beer. Holden was right. The goddamn movies.
Basketball is the key to the opening scene. Driver makes the above deal with the Lakers game on television, then waits in his car, big wristwatch on the steering wheel, while his clients rob a building and he impassively listens to both b-ball game and police band radio. Time ticks down. One guy emerges. The car is nondescript, a late-model Impala, but with a race-car engine. Smart, but we figure, despite the subterfuge, despite the attempt to fit in, there’s no point in the race-car engine unless it’s going to be used, right? Sure enough, when the other guy emerges, the alarm goes off, and off they go. The police are tracking them now. Driver tries to blend in with his late-model Impala but they’re after him, on him, more efficient than any police force in the real world. Except instead of the freewheeling ride through the city we expect, with its hairpin turns and squealing tires and car crashes, we remain inside the car for most of the chase while Driver uses his knowledge of the streets of LA to duck under canopies and hide in shadows. The basketball game is still on—Driver must be a huge fan, we think—and at a stoplight, with a cop car directly opposite him, he actually turns up the volume. Because he knows the chase is over and he can relax now? No, because the Lakers game is ending and the Staples Center is nearby, and Driver drives into its garage, parks, puts on a Lakers cap, and walks out, past the cops, with the rest of the crowd. Clean.
So that’s our guy. He’s a great getaway driver, he’s a great stunt driver—we see him do a rollover, wearing some kind of creepy, protective latex mask that makes him look like the Toxic Avenger—and he’s the best mechanic Shannon has ever seen. But he’s not a story. Not yet.
Two things happen to make him a story. Shannon convinces a local mobster, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), to bankroll a racecar with Driver as his driver; and Driver develops a relationship with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan).
Neither thing actually comes to fruition—Driver never drives for Bernie and he and Irene never truly hook up—but both things still intersect in a way to create the story.
The movie keeps going in unexpected directions. Driver and Irene slowly and silently build their relationship, and, while romantic, it’s platonic. Is he going to kiss her here? No. Is he going to say something there? No. He shifts his toothpick from behind his ear back to his mouth and leaves. But he’s got a nice relationship developing with her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), and behind the quiet between Driver and Irene one can feel the pressure—romantic, sexual—building. It’s in their looks and the music and the mood. Except it turns out she’s married. Her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in jail. Then he’s out. There’s a welcome-home party and a confrontation with Driver in the hallway. Standard senses all that pressure within Irene, and he senses his son’s affection for Driver, and he doesn’t like either; but Driver, in his impassive, nearly autistic way, defuses the tension. Of course we know the tension will only mount again, right? Because Standard is the unwanted guy now—certainly by us, and probably by Irene and Benicio—and he won’t take it lying down.
The next time Driver sees him he’s lying down, in their underground parking garage, his face bloodied and bruised. Benicio is cowering near the elevator, an unused bullet in his hand. Placed there as a warning by the guys who bloodied Standard.
We get the story. In prison Standard had to pay protection money and now they want more. Two thousand? Twenty? Does it matter? What they really want is for him to rob a pawn shop in broad daylight. Irene remains innocent of it all—she thinks drunk kids beat up Standard—and the bad guys are closing in, so Driver does the decent thing: He decides to help out his rival to protect Irene and Benicio. He agrees to drive for him.
The job goes awry, of course, Standard is killed, and Driver and the bagman, Blanche (Christina Hendricks, surely no man), hole up in a dive motel. They were supposed to get away with 40K, they wound up with $1 million, but the TV news reports no money was stolen. Driver knows something’s up, he knows Blanche knows, and he forces her to give up information and take him to the people responsible. But too late. The gangsters are already outside the motel.
It’s an interesting moment. Driver is out of his element—he’s not in a car—and, as per his philosophy, he doesn’t carry a gun. He’s trapped. He’s like us.
But he’s not. Instead he turns out to be methodically, impassively brutal, and he’s the only one who leaves the motel room alive. His blood-splattered face here reminds me of Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now.” His racing jacket, which will get progressively stained, reminds me of Bruce Willis’ T-shirt in the original “Die Hard.”
The heist was planned, it turns out, by Nino (Ron Perlman), a gangster compatriot of Bernie, and the man who crippled Shannon years back, in order to rip off east coast mobsters who were stashing money at the pawn shop. But now it’s all turned bad. Driver wants to give the money back but Nino is too stupid to accept it:
Nino: What do you get out of it?
Driver: Just that. Out of it.
Except there is no out of it. We’re in “Godfather III” territory now. Driver keeps going up the chain of command to extract himself; but the higher up he goes, the worse it gets.
Did anyone else think Gosling sounded like a young Mickey Rourke? That kind of low-level cool but without the rakish charm? His Driver is sad-eyed and mechanic. When he finally kills Nino in the nighttime California surf, he’s almost like an automaton. He’s like Death, approaching slowly and steadily and inevitably. Say it: He’s the Terminator, and the movie is another action-hero/revenge flick but filmed for the art-house crowd. It’s designed to disturb as well as give pleasure. It creates doubt about our wish-fulfillment fantasies rather than certainty. Enough doubt? Feel free to discuss below.
To the kiss—the best kiss I’ve seen in years, ladies. I almost don’t want to talk about it because its power lies, in part, on its unexpectedness. But it’s too good not to talk about.
In their apartment building, Driver, Irene, and a third man ride the elevator to the parking garage. The third man is a hit man for the mob, which we know, and which Driver suspects, and of which Irene is, of course, innocent. Refn allows the music and tension to build. Then, in slow mo, Driver sweeps Irene to the side. In anticipation of launching an attack? No. To kiss her for the first time. Earlier in the movie, Refn built up the anticipation of romance only to forgo it. Here, he builds up the anticipation of violence only to relieve the previous romantic tension. For a second anyway. Driver, for all his near autism, turns out to be a far-seeing man. He knows the appearance of the mob at his place means his name is known, and greater involvement with Irene will only threaten her, so his kiss is both a kiss hello and a kiss goodbye. It’s the kiss that’s supposed to sustain him through everything he has to do to keep her safe. To sustain him through the rest of his life. But we’re romantics in the audience. We hope the kiss means something else. We want it to go on. And just when think it might go on is when Driver turns and relieves the tension over the impending violence.
September 24, 2011
© 2011 Erik Lundegaard