Monday, October 17, 2011
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Runtime: 100 min.
Verdict: The pleasures of it are immense. And The Driver’s nomination into the Hall of Coolness has been rejected.
Genre: Action, Drama
(Note: My observations are drawn from both the leaked work-print version and the theatrical version. I have taken the liberty of choosing the best of both to be archived in my memory.)
Tom Stall is a restaurant owner in a small town. He has a wife and two kids, a son and a daughter. He is also one of the great characters at the movies, specifically the action movies, representing not merely the complicated psychosexual desires of its most potent characters, but of the genre itself. A History of Violence is in some ways a history of the action picture, and by borrowing the narrative structure of Unforgiven it automatically assumes an apologetic stance, seeking a “revision” of the genre and confessing its perverse pleasures. Mr. Refn’s Drive works as some kind of a revision of that revision, an effort to restore the mythology of the action hero despite this awareness, and when The Driver (Mr. Gosling) always ensures to be neatly packed in a satin jacket one cannot help but wonder about Patrick Bateman and Mary Harron’s American Psycho, another film seeking the perverse cultural pleasures of the 80s. Some of the genre’s coolest characters never ever worried about their dress(exception: Le Samourai and his fedora, but is it really?), and although their respective films lent them a wardrobe worth spending a million bucks for, the camera’s and in turn the character’s scant regard conveyed a rather old-school ranch-grown masculinity.
A rather salient feature of the archetypical cool guy at the movies has been is his predominantly “practical” disposition, his respect for both money and personal safety, which in essence makes him a “businessman” (right now, I can’t help but remember Gabriel Byrne’s Dean Keaton), and into which the filmmaker sneaks in the feminine – a little girl or a full-blown woman – or the masculine – honor, a betrayal’s payback – via the mechanics of the genre/plot. A filmmaker like Michael Mann often contrasts these two, even attempts to undermine the former through the latter, and draws a whole career out of it. Mr. Refn introduces us to The Driver through a map, an empty room and a bag. It is a life of acute minimalism, and when we overhear The Driver laying out his rules about the 5-minute window, an image morphed out of all the monks in action film history starts condensing within us. And yet, there’s a strange tension within this pan and the way its gaze follows. The Driver is looking through the window, and our vantage point is able to see his reflection better than the world outside. Who, or what is he looking at? More specifically, what is Mr. Refn looking at? Let us have a look at two of the calmer, considerably less conflicted images the movies have thrown at us, or more specifically two images I’ve been in love with for a considerable period of my adult life.
Here, there is the satin jacket with a golden scorpion staring at us, elevating the artifact to an attribute, and one might even wonder if The Driver is appraising himself in the mirror. They come thick and fast, these reflections, through rear view mirrors and car windows, elevating themselves to one of the film’s prime motifs. Mr. Refn, I believe, cannot stop staring. Neither can he stop worshipping. And although he is working with metaphors just about as slippery as Mr. Aronofsky’s (say, masks, which doubles as a neat movie reference when teamed with a cliff and overhead lights), he sure as hell is not nearly as obvious and suffocating, and in The Driver, through Mr. Gosling, he is working with something of a “black” scorpion himself, or in other words an archetype. The framework is all there, with the satin jacket, with those gloves, with that toothpick, with that hammer, all attributes and without which The Driver might as well be anybody, you or me. The effort here is then, as in many such films, to attach specificity to these attributes, to maybe understand who Tom Stall might’ve been, to somehow identify him through the choices he makes, or let us say the turns he takes, a motif that doubles as a metaphor. Mr. Refn lays down this metaphor with a simple cut, a jarring one that intentionally calls attention to itself, where he links, through a reverse-shot, The Driver driving to him walking through the alleys of a superstore. Mr. Refn seldom lays out the geography of his territory, and his camera is more intent on watching The Driver than everything around. It is his gaze that it follows, it is through his windshield that the world around opens up, like for instance the superstore, or a car-park where a space opens up within the film, both literally and figuratively, with no prior establishment.
The thing is, because of this satin jacket, because of this toothpick, because of these gloves, because of this navel-gazing the self-righteousness within the film’s perspective might as well be read as Travis Bickle’s world. That Mr. Refn and Mr. Gosling are aware of this – the former’s editing choices and the latter’s performance are sufficiently post-modern in this regard to lend the film the benefit of the doubt – shouldn’t take us away from the fact that they are indeed reveling in that awareness. Mr. Gosling sits in the café like Travis did years ago, and in an interesting reveal about his rather devious traits he questions Irene about her husband’s well-being knowing fully well the situation at hand. He is so laconic his blinks take a complete second, and yet in a moment of crisis that seemed to have not merely betrayed the archetype the film has built but almost destroy the illusion of his performance The Driver is agitated enough to be completely animated and even grabs his boss’s collar. Mr. Refn, in turn, edits (an exceptional use of dissolve that reminds us of David Lynch) this sequence with The Driver essentially driving and calming himself, and slowly regaining his cool-performance. A second viewing helped me immensely, especially that it comes right after an elevator sequence where an almost constipated Driver is drawing heavy deep breaths, and it occurred to me that his closest cousin had to be Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman. Where the latter’s film (belonging to the slasher genre) is probably running within him, the former’s film (most definitely belonging to the superhero kind) is running around him. Consider Wolverine and Sabretooth, or say Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.
Mr. Refn highlights this in an amusing manner, with music playing in an apartment nearby filling The Driver’s room so much so that it is playing within him. As is the case with some of us, The Driver was drove into the movie of his life. He is the hero of it, and a hero always demands of himself to not merely be under control, but be in control. Controlling the steering wheel and driving anywhere he wants to and taking any turn he chooses to. Mr. Refn’s command of montage here, to highlight The Driver’s desire to be in control, is quite exceptional here. Twice he foreshadows events, suggesting The Driver anticipating and planning, and once, through the lone moment where The Driver is agitated, he allows him to reflect, suggesting a loss of control. The only other place where the driver seems to have lost control over proceedings is during the shoot-out and failed heist. The violence then lies in the manner in which he retaliates to gain control. Mr. Refn reveals this retaliation, or this violent streak, in gears – a dolly and a verbal destruction of a potential threat, a surprising almost shocking slapping of a woman complete with a fellatio-position (this is probably the moment of revelation), and the complete physical destruction of an insurgent – after which the Driver smashes into the enemy territory.
It is in those final moments where I benefitted from seeking the theatrical version, and where my relation with The Driver was completely and utterly destroyed. There’s a bag full of money in question and as the Driver drives away in the work-print version, I had assumed (because the trunk is never opened and the bag never makes an appearance) that he has finally learnt to be all about business, or at least was cool enough to align them with his personal desires, as Porter did for his 70 grand. I was satisfied. And the theatrical version destroyed that satisfaction. The bag does make an appearance and The Driver leaves it behind. Maybe he was wiser than me. Maybe he learnt that he ought not to touch the mob’s money. Maybe he shall learn from here and never again lose control. But until then his election into the Hall of Coolness shall have to wait.
Note: Consider the work-print as a different “studio-approved” version, and the theatrical release as the director’s cut. A list of some of the differences could be found here