Driveby Kavish Chetty / 08.12.2011
Drive opens up on the dark, neon-lit arteries of downtown Los Angeles. There’s an immediate parallel here – you feel it in the loneliness, the slumberous anguish – to Taxi Driver. You’ll acclimate to the lead character slowly (he’s a nameless dude credited as “the Driver”), but there’s a seismic moment when it all lurches in his favour; a kind of regicidal scene in which I found myself saying “This guy is cooler than Travis Bickle.” Perhaps one day he will become as iconic, but for now he certainly is as laconic. Travis Bickle was all about street-level raw existentialism, inarticulate with his own nihilistic sense of morality. He had those murderous monologues: “Listen you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore; a man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” Our driver has a similar pursuit of justice – a gory, private justice – but he begins his questing in silence.
I should probably say at the threshold that this is the most boss film I’ve seen the whole year; that the existence of a film like this gives holy vindication to every barb I’ve launched at the spiritually deficit bullshit I’ve had to review/endure in 2011. The subtext of South African cinema is – broadly speaking – “there is no hope for humanity in art”. That’s what all the comprador logic, capitulatory gags and American pole-polishing adds up to thematically. A film like this – both thinking and thrilling – is everything I enjoy about cinema. Let that congratulation be met with reactionary venom on the comment board.
Ryan Gosling plays the driver, a stunt-man and mechanic moonlighting as a getaway wheelman. In his namelessness, he belongs to a gilded heritage of anonymous bad-asses: Think “The Preacher” of Pale Rider or (hmm, tellingly) “The Man with no Name” of the Dollars trilogy. These are not simply sly references – all three characters are roped together by their independence, their aloofness, their thirst for justice through retributive violence. But the references are part of the rich intertextuality of the film, which urges its admirers to return and decode. There are clear influences from Bullitt (even a spectacular chase scene featuring a Mustang GT), and director – the Danish Nicolas Winding Refn – has marked the film as a tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky. The citations of Jodorowsky are only oblique. The film has none of his jarring and bloody surrealism, but the clues are there for those who have seen El Topo and Holy Mountain.
I want to stall and check telling you about the plot for one reason: Drive has a masterful grip on tension; it builds it up thickly, then annihilates it gorgeously. There are whole hanging epochs of tension and potential in the film. They promise subversion or confirmation, but you can never tell which will be the resolving mechanism, and the film commands your anxiety. The driver is a loner who becomes embroiled in a semi-romance with his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan, blonde and fey). His awkwardness suggests something inaugural about this encounter. Irene lives with her young boy. Her husband, Standard, is jailed, but is soon released and back home, eager to start afresh. Debts from his criminal past return to haunt his starting-over and his wife and kid end up threatened. Our driver, perhaps humanised by his brief but bodily encounter with the family, decides to help Standard get together the cash he owes. They collaborate on a heist.
The staging of this whole thing is something like an homage; a “classic” set-up. The film pulls off its archetypal tale stylishly and skillfully. There is none of the gape-mouthed exploitation, the tired rehearsals of old themes. Here they take on the bold shape of being consecrated through their vitality and relevance. What is the constitution of all this tension, though? The atmospheric music – plangent, slow synth – contributes, as do some incredible performances. Ron Perlman as Jewish mobster Nino has the most frightening face I’ve ever seen (look at all those teeth, please don’t smile again!). Gosling gets a perfect equilibrium between broody and alienated; it’s difficult to sympathise with him at first, but later on the point of all his muteness makes itself clear, tonally clear, in the film’s pacing and resultant potential to fuck with that pacing.
Much of the soundtrack is made of delicious modern synth-pop tracks; teenage confections of romance. It’s a strange juxtapositional choice, having this driver cruise around listening to pop, while repressing his dark impulses and tendencies. It suggests something about the dire status of these contemporary romances. Our generation is hopped up on the 21st-century; throats swollen with the helium of their illusions, they squeak out platitudes and banalities. But inside all the pop and sweetness, dark things are a-lurking. I love the gorgeous darkness of this film. It’s an incredibly stylish neo-noir Taxi Driver. It’s a subtler Pulp Fiction which accomplishes its revenge narrative without having to crowbar its postmodernism in your face. It even conjures up that childhood impulse: I want to be like the Driver; I want his purpose, his violence, his justice; his heroism. (In the most enjoyable song of the film – College & Electric Youth’s “Real Hero” – a whispery girl sings of “a real human being” and “a real hero”.)
So beyond this review – which I’ve hoped to keep spoiler free – perhaps you should go into the film cold. Just breathe it in. It’s a hyper-stylish accomplishment in storytelling; a suspenseful and beautifully-wrought existential journey.
*Releases 9 December 2011.