"Flash Over Substance"
“I used to produce movies in the '80′s. Kind of action films, sexy stuff…one critic called them 'European.' I thought they were shit”
In 1987, two movies of the same type came out and they could not be any more different, despite their similarities of plot—Martin Scorsese made After Hours and John Landis made Into the Night. Both were movies about semi-clueless day-jobbers who had to negotiate the dark unknown (to them) underbelly of their cities in the wee small hours of the morning and somehow survive to the dawn. What made them different were the sensibilities of the directors and their neighborhoods—Scorsese's took place in brownstone New York and Landis' took place in the high-styled concrete of Los Angeles.
It's a similar trick here, it just took 36 years to make an L.A. counter-point to Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and that film is Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn in the same cold blue-and-teal gloss of a 1980's era Michael Mann film or the similar cool veneer provided Risky Business' Paul Brickman.*
Like Scorsese's film, we have a restless professional driver (Ryan Gosling), but it's L.A. so he's a stunt-driver for the movies by day, and a for-hire getaway genius at night (demonstrated by two very nicely laid out chase sequences, one at night evading the police and one chase on the open road later in the film). He's also a garage mechanic for mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who has designs on a racetrack career with his young protégé behind the wheel.
The Driver—he is a typical "Man with No Name" with no discernible past and an "iffy" future—is utterly defined by his mechanical abilities under the hood and behind the wheel. His words are spare,** never betraying the mind that is firing on all cylinders, his eyes taking everything in, without much expression to betray his heart or motivations, much like the visual style and minimal acting employed for Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle. But with no name and no voice-over narration to provide motivation, the audience is always just a little behind what is being presented on-screen, which pays off in a couple of nifty ways early on as the director presents him in an environment without giving any clues as to what might be going on. For instance, that first getaway sequence at night is followed by a day shot of Gosling in a policeman's uniform. A moment of disorientation follows (he's a cop?...but...), which is then visually resolved in a way that makes one trust one's own abilities to find the answers (and the director to provide them), if not entirely trust The Driver. That works well over the arc of the story, which, frankly, is not that special, despite the interesting way it is delivered.
For that character development is where Drive and the classic Scorsese film merge and go different paths, to the earlier film's advantage. The Driver becomes involved with his neighbor—she does have a name, Irene, played by Carey Mulligan—who has a husband in prison and a son she's caring for herself. The Driver takes an interest, helps out, becomes involved in their worlds, then, just as everybody is getting comfortable—quiet, yet comfortable—the husband gets released from prison, and becomes wrapped up in some bad goings-on. Empathizing with Irene, fearing for the boy, he volunteers to be the driver on the Standard One Last Job for Irene's husband, where things do not go smoothly, putting everybody's life in jeopardy and making The Driver a one-man revenge squad to get to the bottom of what happened and keep the family safe.
And that's where Drive left me cold. Taxi Driver was an urban fairy tale, the product of one man's romantic fantasy that didn't fit in with the real world. And Paul Schrader's screenplay and Scorsese's direction spelled out that Travis Bickle's image of himself as a knight aboard a checkerboard steed was just as fanciful—and deluded—as Don Quixote's. Drive takes it all very seriously, assured that the nurturing care-giver and the bloody names-taker can be contained in one self-contained package. Taxi Driver had the smarts and the ironic cynicism to let the world at large buy into Bickle's fantasy and myth, despite him being, in truth, a psychopath. But, Drive's hero, with veins running anti-freeze...and let us say "unique" ways of threatening people...is swathed in eyes-wide romanticism, without the distancing projection of myth...or even humor, ironic or otherwise. His "Man with No Name," being in action more like one of Kurosawa's samurai or Leone's gun-slingers, moves through the landscape, but without the flaws that define character, a cypher, unknowable, unapologetic, unaccountable and ultimately adrift—something more spirit than human.
A note on the violence: as in Taxi Driver, it is surprising, shocking and unmerciful, a result of Refn's stylization—he splashes the color red in the cold colors of his landscape occasionally to attract the eye of the audience and the Driver and the blood of the violence, because it clashes so much in the color scheme of the film, is doubly grisly (just think how lurid the shooting spree in Taxi Driver would be if the colors weren't destaurated in order to secure an "R," rather than an "X," rating), to the point where it elicits uncomfortable laughter, rather than gasps.
The bottom line, then, is that the film becomes out-of-step with itself, a cool silver jacket with patches of red from wearing its heart on its sleeve, unsentimentally sentimental, tears falling amidst acid rain. However cleverly distilled from its cinematic but more cynical predecessors, with its un-tarnished knight in shining chrome, Drive is a fairy tale for the phony-tough.
Drive is a Rental.
* The similarity even extends to the soundtrack, which vibrates to Euro-buzz techno with lyrics that offer on-the-nose commentary to what's happening on-screen.
** One of the funniest lines in the film (to me, anyway) has Shannon's pre-introduction to investor Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks—also in Taxi Driver—and there isn't a trace of comedy in his performance, which is quite impressive) include the phrase "Don't say anything," as if his character wouldn't, anyway.
Orson Welles explains it all for you (from Mr. Arkadin).