Director Nicolas Winding Refn really needs to have a word with his marketing department.
His film of 2009 Valhalla Rising was largely pitched as 300 with Vikings; ‘Born of violence! Born of blood!’ screeches the cover in front of a crimson splattered Mads Mikkelsen and a battle ready Norse horde – a horde which never actually materialises in the film – those looking for the sort of action heavy fare implied would be sorely disappointed by the complex and gradually paced metaphysical journey it delivers.
So it was that his latest film Drive (2011) was given a similarly unfortunate treatment last year. Between a terrible trailer which manages to both misrepresent and spoil the best moments along with a poster campaign suggesting endless car chases, you’d be forgiven for anticipating Fast & Furious 6; contrary to its title though and much like its directorial predecessor this is not that movie.
Refreshingly there’s a distinct lack of vehicular pornography here, Refn is said to be wholly uninterested in cars not even holding a licence and it shows. There are only three car chases in the trim 90 minute runtime, two of which feel so distinctly unconventional I wonder if they can really be called ‘chases’ at all. Dialogue is minimal and in spite of the premise the film’s never in a hurry being more Taxi Driver than Taxi.
On paper the plot sounds deceptively generic: a nameless driver (Ryan Gosling) who works as a stuntman and garage hand by day moonlights as a criminal getaway driver, running a smooth double life until something goes horrible wrong™. Just reading a synopsis before its release made me painfully recall boozy Saturday nights wasted in front of TV absorbing entertainment with all the memorable qualities of a sneeze. What sets Drive apart from such testosterone fuelled fluff is the emotional investment it makes in characters and carefully developed mood it garners throughout.
Gosling’s Driver – initially portrayed as cookie cutter ‘strong silent type’ – quickly manifests as a far more interesting man in conflict. Rather than simply being cool and quiet, he’s established as someone almost entirely devoid of life, exceptionally talented behind the wheel but lacking in almost every other area. He literally feels empty as a human being.
I know that having love step into fill the void is one of the oldest plot devices in the book but it’s played out with subtlety and finesse, creeping up on the viewer rather than being rammed down their throat. Slowly becoming involved with his neighbour Irene and her son we see him begin to emerge from his shell to – as the soundtrack phrases it – become a ‘real human being’.
It’s all too good to last of course as Irene’s husband returns from prison inadvertently bringing a wave of criminal terror with him. Feeling obligated to help the family through ambiguous motives the driver steps in to help, at which point the film’s real dramatic power comes into play; the formerly sedate tone is shattered in an explosion of aggression and we see a far more disturbing side to our protagonist. It’s from this carnage that an unsettling poignancy begins arise in his contradictory behaviour and its inevitable conclusion: for all the good intentions to defend them every act of violence pushes Irene and her son further way.
What does any of this have to do with my project? Well, beyond being a movie worth recommending it’s also firmly lodged in the neo-noir genre. The category is constantly misappropriated and overused these days but in the case of Drive it’s most definitely earned. Connecting to classic noir there’s an abundance of dubious morality and creative cinematography (which I’ll go into in a moment), while the calmer first half before the descent into violence follows the parent genre’s common trajectory down into a narrative heart of darkness.
The ‘neo’ side of things though takes a quirky and somewhat inspired move by adopting resolutely retro qualities of cinema past, specifically the films of the 1980’s. The alternately sun bleached and neon washed streets of LA, liberal use of slow motion photography and can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head electro pop soundtrack all recall the era’s celluloid output so uncannily it’s often easy to forget its set in the present day. On a personal note, it also presents a compelling defence for the relevance of these qualities in relation to a certain disagreement I had a while back regarding 80’s influences…
The direction, editing and visuals are uniformly brilliant as well with Refn and his cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel clearly having a profound control over the medium and what they want to show. Again, tying in with Noir there’s some typically striking use of light and shadow contrasts but its elevated considerably by touches of bold ingenuity; cold tones are masterfully overlaid with rich reds and warm yellows in manner reminiscent of Mario Bava or early Dario Argento films, while the camera work frequently breaks with convention often eschewing exterior shots of driving in favour of a closer more intense view of the subjects. The visuals are indeed so strong at times that they override much of dialogue, while towards the end the signature visual crescendo does much of the talking plot-wise.
Bizarre a comparison as it may sound my conclusions of what makes Drive such a brilliant film and so noteworthy to my work are remarkably similar to those I recently drew on Hellboy, it keeps everything simple and is ultimately more inclined to show rather than tell. It’s a modest film in many respects; it’s not an epic, runs under two hours, has no indulgent back stories, no large scale shootouts or overblown street racing and no sex scenes – it strips away all the flab and overproduced nonsense that’s become synonymous with much of today’s action cinema and actually delivers more as a result. A reminder of what really matters in film: character, story, visual craft, atmosphere and emotion.
Ah well, perhaps Refn will get a better advertising campaign next time…