This review is not one filled with spoilers but I’d just warn that one can better understand the points I’m trying to make if they have seen the film. Obviously everything I say below is my own opinion and interpretations of the film and many will disagree. I’m writing this second review because in order to sustain my recent obsession with Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film ‘Drive’, I have been reading a lot of interviews with the director so that I could both better understand the motivation and ideas surrounding its creation as well as to better appreciate its style and themes so that I can add that onto my already huge admiration and love for the film to better articulate how I felt and express why I think it is the second best film of the year, the first being ‘The Tree of Life’ which was the only other I have seen in 2011 that has caused me to do a second write up like this one and although ‘Drive’ might not be as “deep”, I do believe it is much more complex than some make it out to be and a second viewing caused me to think about it none stop and there are just something’s I need to say.
Since this past weekend when I did see it that second time, the thing that I have come to understand that really caused me to view the entire film in a much different perspective was that my very simple explanation in my other review of it being some sort of character study in the vein of ‘The American’ mixed with ‘Taxi Driver’, though in some ways true, does not even begin to acknowledge the fact that what ‘Drive’ really is, and what Refn decided to create, is a film with a fairy tale archetype guided by an old fable whose themes of love, nature, brutality and heroism shed a new light on the character’s romance and exploits, as well as makes the stories ending that much more emotional.
Refn considers this idea of it being a fairytale to be true, and has said it multiple times, because that is ultimately what he wanted to create. In his words ‘Drive’ is a fairytale set in Los Angeles, whose characters are larger than life figures representing “pure emotion” as he put it; which explains why the love is so pure and the violence is so brutal and there is rarely a middle ground, they are exaggerations of real emotions to add to its fantastical tone.
The first half is the serene and pure story of the innocent young maiden lost in the woods who falls for a “Knight in shining armor”. When evil appears and violates their world of purity and love and threatens the young maiden’s wellbeing, they must be punished by the Knight which brings out a much darker side to the story, in the vein of the Grimm fairytales. The young maiden of course being Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mother raising her son alone while her husband is in prison. The Knight she falls for has no name but is referred to as simply the Driver (Ryan Gosling). A quiet and mysterious man who is a mechanic and stuntmen by day and a getaway driver by night. He is lonely and most enjoys being out on the road, but easily falls for the beautiful Irene and her son, who offer a chance to be human and evoke emotions he rarely feels. This simple story of love is interrupted when Standard (Oscar Isaac), Irene’s husband, reappears. Not only does he cause a divide but his past resurfaces which has connections to two dangerous gangsters (Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman). In order to do whatever he can to protect Irene and her son, the Driver offers his services to Standard for a heist. It ultimately goes horribly wrong and the two gangsters look to cover it all up by getting rid of all involved, which includes the Driver and Irene.
From here that much darker side appears as the Driver is forced to fight back and protect the things he cares about. This half of the story is guided by the fable of “The Scorpion and the Frog”, about a scorpion who asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid to do so because he does not want to be stung but the scorpion tells him that if he were to sting the frog they’d both drown, so the frog agrees. Halfway across the scorpion does in fact sting the frog dooming them both and when the frog asks why he did so the scorpion replies that it is in his nature. The idea being for some creatures their behavior is irrepressible and so cannot be controlled no matter what the consequences. For the scorpion his nature was to sting, he does things instinctively and without much thought. When in a situation where this instinctive nature must come to the surface, when cornered or in this case when those people the Driver cares for are threatened, he reverts to that aggressive scorpion nature and stings, hard and violent no matter the consequence which in this case means losing himself or the ones he cares for.
The elevator scene is really that tipping point where the stinger comes out and not surprisingly one of the best scenes in the entire film. It is when he puts his human emotion and love aside in order to fully protect Irene. After he kisses her goodbye he knows he is about to reveal his true nature. After viciously killing the man who had put him into that corner he looks at Irene and knows it is over which is his ‘great sacrifice’, letting the one he loves go in order to protect her, and what makes him a true hero. The elevator door closes and the two are separated for good. He must now do whatever he can to distance himself and all this evil from Irene and her son.
What is interesting about the idea of the Driver as being a hero is the sort of duel personalities he evokes. One could say he is human by day, working a normal job, shopping and falling in love but a “hero” by night, though not helping the right people. When the story really becomes interesting is when he has to blend the two personas to become something more which is why Refn and Gosling have described it as their ‘superhero’ film. He is a man with the capacity to be a “real hero” and it is only when he can bring his human emotion to that more aggressive and skillful side that he does become this sort of superhero-like character. Obviously it is difficult for him. It isn’t a smooth transition and at times he has trouble controlling it, which comes through as he shakes as his anger and adrenaline builds when talking to Nino on the phone and of course when he brutality stomps the life out of one of Nino’s hitmen in the elevator scene mentioned earlier. This is that scorpion nature coming through, this aggressive nature is the key to his power, and why it is most fitting that his ‘custom’ is a jacket with a scorpion logo on the back.
Though his actions seem necessary he still does not want to lose his ‘human’ side and puts on the mask towards the end because he must fully embrace this more aggressive side to get the job done, to quell his emotions and settle the battle raging between both persona’s and essentially become a lifeless and aggressive vessel with one objective. This way he can do what needs to be done, evoke a bit of fear from his target, but cover up and shield his human persona and not completely lose himself. Throughout this he becomes someone we empathizes with, even if his methods seem to be so extreme. The outcome to it all, although somewhat ambiguous, is a fitting and emotional conclusion where some people do in fact live happily ever after.
What makes this all work so effectively is the fact that ‘Drive’ is a film in which things don’t need to be spoken to be said. One where characters express more through silence, short but poignant dialogue and the interactions they have together. Refn brilliantly creates a dreamlike and contemplative exploration of the serene and the hyper violent set within a fairytale like story that happens to be a slow burning character study of the ‘scorpion’ where everything is just below the surface and it all builds up, through a series of quiet and calm moments, only to erupt into brutal violence. Nothing is handed to you, there is no blatant exposition, you don’t always know what is going on in a characters head and it helps create a level of tension and actually requires one to think. This isn’t some sort of mindless action thriller, it’s much more contemplative and complex than one would expect. He polishes it all off with a retro varnish evoking a different time, helping to set it apart from reality and add to its moody atmosphere, but still keeping it grounded enough to feel real and have that emotional punch. Add onto that all of that the fantastic performances: Ryan Gosling’s brilliantly effective and charismatic performance as the Driver, Carey Mulligans charming and sweet portrayal of Irene, Ron Perlman’s brutish and aggressive Nino, Albert Brooks as the ruthless but understandable Bernie, Bryan Cranston as the downtrodden but humorous Shannon, Oscar Isaac as Irene’s husband who needs help to avoid his past; and what you are left with is a masterful, beautiful and complex film. It truly is a modern day fairytale, perfect in every way, and a film that I couldn’t help but fall in love with.