At the beginning of A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, the filmmaker quotes Frank Capra. “Film is a disease,” he says. “When it infects your bloodstream it takes over as the number one hormone. It plays Iago to your psyche. And as with heroin, the antidote to Film is more Film.” The way that Scorsese takes Capra’s belief, injecting it into his own art, exhibits a drive for power, the need to project his fetishes for others. He wants to wrap you up in his obsessions and sensibility, overpowering you as he makes you see the world, through film, as he sees it. He is windswept into the possibilities of the subjective mind’s eye birthing a new world. In contrast to a more conventional philosophy of restraint, where the camera, cuts, music, and so the director’s ego is invisible, this other kind of filmmaker wants to control us. He is like a musician, authoring our own feelings if we surrender to his spell, where we are summoned out of our seats and compelled to participate not only in sympathy with a specific character, but the more general and larger character of the totality of an experience. How could this elevation not be addictive, for both filmmakers and viewers?
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is about the rush of movies. It’s about the love a moviegoer has for film and the tragic maze the moviegoer constructs in that love and addiction, placing him on a tense border with reality. Some critics and audiences have accused Drive of being shallow, existential noir posturing. This is a reading displaying a viewer’s own shallow interpretation of material that is, I believe, ample in breadth as it is intimately controlled by the director's reigns. We may follow the story about a Los Angeles mechanic (Ryan Gosling) leading a double life as stuntman and getaway driver, as a straight genre yarn with the usual suspects lined up: a beautiful and imperiled neighbor girl, a crusty but unlucky mentor, and some vile gangsters looking to clean up a bad heist. The Driver, as he is listed in the credits, has no backstory, little dialogue, unaffected gazes, and bouts of explosive, super human rage. Refn has succeeded in making at least two great movies: a straight narrative B-movie, and a darkly ironic masterpiece. And from that irony, Drive emerges a peerlessly complete movie experience, hard to define in its mastery of so many angles: as neo-noir crime story, riveting action thriller, bittersweet romantic fairy tale, stellar drama, and absurd comedy. Because of how its machinery is so expertly dictated (I think this is the best-directed film of the year), Refn himself doubles for his hero, driving on a delicate balance of authenticity and pastiche, romance and parody, low-brow and high, sane and psychopathic. Reactions to Drive run the gamut (always a sign of great art), but between its fans there are those who have been fooled by Refn's masks and live with the Driver's madness, just as others luxuriate in the irony.
Refn is triggering our excitation for film just as he’s wryly interrogating it. The Driver’s power – and madness – is the same pathological aestheticism of Refn and the whole film, held up as a mirror to us. The parable of the Scorpion and the Frog is referenced, a possible allusion to Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin, where the title character (Welles) tells the story of the scorpion who stings the skeptical frog helping him cross the river, in effect killing them both. “I can’t help it,” Arkadin quotes the scorpion. “It’s in my character.” Arkadin has constructed his own maze, where his life and meaning is inscrutable. He controls this maze, but is also consumed by it, and so it’s almost perversely correct that Mr. Arkadin should be itself an unfinished film with no final cut (three versions exist, none of which reflect Orson Welles’ final vision). It’s the character – or nature – of Welles’ film to be insoluble, the key theme he repeatedly explored, beginning with Citizen Kane.
Drive is about the function of "Character," and not just “Nature” but also the aesthetic and narrative functions of characters, who have so many glaring utilitarian considerations in B-movies, like damaged molls, reformed cons, savage gangsters or outlaws, and lone vigilantes or cowboys. Like in Mr. Arkadin, where the title character is first seen at a masquerade, masks are an important motif in Drive. The film is asking us, “What is the character of this character?” We see the Driver’s stunt-mask, meant to replicate a bald-headed action hero movie-star; a Jack-o-Lantern mask worn by a child, which the Driver responds to by saying, “Scary,” nodding to its classical function; the actor Ron Perlman, playing the brash Jewish pizzeria gangster Nino, is famous for his unforgettable mask-like visage; and an actor’s reputation, like that of comedian Albert Brooks, acts as its own mask, working against our own expectations, being that his character, the mob boss Bernie Rose, is the film’s key heavy, functioning as both the Driver’s antagonist and double. A nuanced viewing shows that the Driver is not a blank hero, but a troubled loner who owes as much to unsavory psychopaths like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Francis Dollarhyde (Manhunter) as he does to Western heroes like Shane, Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name and Dirty Harry, Steve McQueen in Bullitt, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, or other Michael Mann anti-heroes like safe-cracking thieves Neil McCauley (Heat) and Frank (Thief). The Driver is scripting his own action narrative, channeling the celluloid wish fulfillment of his audience and aestheticizing all existence.
Drive opens with a map that the Driver has himself penciled, indicating that this world is his own creation. The camera pans over to him talking on his cellphone, explaining that Los Angeles has “over 100,000 streets.” He says that he drives, and he can pick up his clients anywhere for any job, as long as he knows nothing of their business or identities. He will wait five minutes, no longer, while they perform their burglaries. Drive is its own puzzle, and only feels simple because of how we’ve been acclimated to action movie turns. But how we got there, in the narrative, feels improvised, as if the film were swerving to incoming external stimuli, or traffic. There’s a marked incoherence and dreamy uncanniness to Drive, much like I first experienced with Blue Velvet (indeed, in addition to the film’s disconnects with logic, David Lynch is given a rather overt nod, if not only with Driver’s rage being similar to Nicolas Cage’s Sailor Ripley in Wild at Heart, then the surprising blink-you-miss-it cameo of Russ Tamblyn, Twin Peaks’ kooky Dr. Jacoby, as a doctor who stitches up the Driver). Like in Lynch's 1986 film, we are dwelling in a place that is governed dually by dream-sense along with the myths implanted by our popular, and sometimes underground, culture. The result is not a parody, but a new dream and a new world where the story is tied more to emotion than to words. Towards the end, when the Driver calls the woman he loves, it's strikingly like when Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) calls Sandy (Laura Dern) in Blue Velvet. Its function feels less narrative than musical. The story transcends the plot.
The magnificent and nearly wordless opening, as the Driver evades capture from cops combing the streets below and illuminating the skies above in helicopters, anticipates Drive’s story trajectory. The beginning indicates that this is going to be a heist film. Or is it a racing film, as the Driver’s crippled mechanic boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), asks for Bernie’s help in funding a car to take on the speedway circuit? The film turns into romantic territory, as Driver gets close to his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). But when the convict husband and father, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), heads home, the film undergoes another rewrite. The first scene between Driver and Standard is an ingenious construction of uneasiness. The way everyone plays the scene – Gosling, Mulligan, Isaac, and the boy Leos – in addition to how Refn shoots all the characters in tense compositions, where the spaces between the actors are strictly and deliberately controlled, conveys indeterminism for where everyone is coming from and where they are going. We have our B-movie norms to steer our expectations. For though Standard, at his Welcome Home party, voices his love for Irene and his gratitude for a second chance, there is an implication of suspicion when he thanks the Driver for how how helpful he’s been as a neighbor. The cutting between the reticent and silent Driver, the coyly lovestruck Irene, the verbal Standard, and naive Benicio, reinforces heavy tension. Is Standard to be trusted? Is this a subliminal interrogation, held by the jealous convict husband character who will lead his family to danger by being pulled back into a criminal lifestyle? The Driver, instead, makes Standard vulnerable, pitiful, weak, and gentle. The Driver can play the role of protector, becoming Shane. Standard is sucked back into criminal enterprises, but against his will, and with Irene and Benicio being threatened he has no choice. The Driver will help Standard with one last score, so that this family can have a happy ending.
And yet that changes at the pawn-shop heist in question. A $40,000 ripoff turns out to be about $1 million; the extra help, Blanche (Christina Hendricks), safely gets in the Driver's backseat with her loot, but Standard is ambushed outside. It’s a double cross, plotted by Nino, to rip-off some East Coast mobsters moving in on his turf. The narrative shifts again, as Driver now assumes the role of Violent Vigilante Bad Ass, becoming a superhero and the sworn protector of Irene, a vengeful dark knight (and I believe Drive is the best superhero film since Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel). In the abstract, Drive’s plot is straight-forward, but like the number of styles and influences it assumes, it contains multitudes. It’s a film that can’t stop moving. The Driver himself is restless: after stopping at his apartment with its blank walls, he has to just as soon check out again, driving some more.
Finally, beyond its allusions to genres, movements, and other filmmakers, Drive is a fairy tale, the cinema frame being its Aladdin’s lamp and Jiminy Cricket. Like Pinocchio, the Driver – who seems so machine-like (indeed, he is perfectly attuned to cars, unlike the awkwardness in his interactions with other people) – wants to be a real boy, a real human being with normal relationships of love and companionship. This adds to the totality of the experience, being that Drive has been endlessly compared to other neo-noirs, underground films, and as I’ve pointed out, comic book superhero fantasies. But Drive could also be categorized with fairy tales like Edward Scissorhands or AI: Artificial Intelligence (Refn himself has jokingly alluded to Pretty Woman, while Gosling has mentioned John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink). My thoughts return to the ritual of moviegoing, a habit that is both communal and isolated, set against a magic "mirror, mirror on the wall," whirling a phantasm of our fears and desires onto which the moviegoer attaches himself, fueled by their narcissism. The triumphant accomplishment of Drive is how Nicolas Winding Refn orchestrates this new Grimms' fairy tale in its relation to three spheres: his main character, his audience, and the film’s final clarity. Like the Driver, we are lost in this maze the filmmaker has drawn for us, maybe giggling at its ironies, but also moved by the bittersweet longing to be a “real human being,” which in the world of film and fantasy, is the same as being a “real hero.”
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
The key turning point of Drive is the pawn shop heist, as it’s here when the film seems to have chosen what it’s going to become. The sound is sucked out of the picture, save for the ticking of the Driver’s watch, which now sounds remarkably like a motion picture projector: the fairy tale is urgently coming to cinematic life, and Refn amplifies the volume of the gunshots that kill Standard (I don’t remember when I heard film gunshots so loud). It’s a break with time and reality, which is what only cinema can do, and bathed in blood we are taken to a new reality.
This twist in events also relates to the problem of violence. Drive has apparently resulted in several walk-outs from filmgoers not expecting its assault that thrashes and stomps out from the screen. Some reservations of mainstream audiences is that Drive, in addition to being too “arty” (whatever that means – having idiosyncrasy?), is too violent. People were expecting Ryan Gosling to be doing a Jason Statham action movie, much like The Transporter or Crank series, where a lone tough guy goes up against a horde of faceless baddies. The wicked, and infuriating, irony is that the first moment of violence in Drive doesn’t happen until the pawn shop heist, roughly 45 minutes into the film. Until now, any sadism in the film has been kept to a simmer (another similarity to Blue Velvet, which is an eccentric PG-rated mystery until Frank Booth emerges). From there, the violence is intense when it happens, which is not that often. It juts out at the audience, desiring a reaction of shock or disgust: it is corporeal in its realism, and yet feels unnatural, which is how violence should be shown. Bodies are damaged and destroyed by violence. Elsewhere in Filmdom, in The Transporter or one of Luc Besson’s productions, like Taken with Liam Neeson, the action violence is quite relentless just as it is fairly bloodless and random – and so it is improper. The desired result is to have the thrilling gung-ho impact of a videogame, as the hero does a ballet with his fists and kicks. Drive’s restraint in momentum distinguishes it from those overflexed fantasies, which kind of mock their audiences by giving infantile catharses of vengeance. The Driver's shaky counter-stove kettle points to aggression's dysfunction.
The debate of cinema and violence, and our relationship to it, has been going on for decades. The scorpion, which we see emblazoned on the Driver’s jacket, has several possible references, each opening a different conversation in relation to meaning: the meaning of character from Mr. Arkadin; pop music, iconography, and fetishes from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising; even a role reversal for our cinematic perception, where the insane serial killer Scorpio is assuming the righteousness of his pursuer, in Dirty Harry -- which brings the conversation back to masks. But the scorpion, coupled with Drive’s shocking violence, most reminded me of the opening from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, where we see a scorpion fighting, and being consumed by, a horde of desert ants (I was struck by the coincidence that Drive was released the same weekend as Rod Lurie’s remake of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. I haven’t seen Lurie’s film, so I won’t dismiss it out of hand, but it is nevertheless interesting given the effect Drive is having on people, whereas I haven’t read of any controversies regarding the new Straw Dogs). Peckinpah married the ideals of the West to modern entropy, as the big guns were outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the new technology of their adversaries (like the Gatling gun). At the film’s conclusion, we see the scorpion’s demise as a metaphor for the Wild Bunch’s outcome. Peckinpah gave us the carnal face of masculine rage, seeking to undermine how benign mass-market violence on television and conventional westerns was an abomination, particularly when young men were being sent off to a war that was televised at dinner time.
For Peckinpah, violence is a very intimate act that must be shown in its gruesome corporeality. We are excited, but then on reflecting what we have seen, troubled. Violence is taken for granted, particularly in American movies where it's benign and balletic, however rampant. Our collective demands for "action packed movies" with full-throttle exclamation marks makes studios mandate genre films that are less narratives than videogames -- and the audience demands it. The result is audiences, and critics (like Salon.com editor Thomas Rogers) complain that a film like Drive "offers little in the way of car chases," while simultaneously arguing, "I honestly think the bigger problem is that this movie is too gut-churningly violent." Yet, beyond Drive having the two best car chasing sequences in recent memory (and it only needs those two), if we were to compare the number of times human bodies are put in peril in Drive with the standard action flick, Drive would probably have fewer corpses and a lot less screen time devoted to carnage. Rogers, and so many other critics, have been tricked by their own heads, which have apprehended the appropriate intensity and intimacy Refn reserves for violence. We have a history of apathy towards violence, while nevertheless encouraging it. So when Refn has Bernie jam a fork into a secondary character's eye, just before ramming a cutlery knife through the throat, it might as well be a fork in our own eager eyes, as we're also conveniently dining on junk food (Bernie's victim is eating pizza when the attack occurs; we're watching what we think is a B-movie). Some viewers, like Rogers, are angry about this. The same thing happened when a host of Europeans took an American star (George Clooney) and made a film advertised as a mainstream thriller, The American, directed by Anton Corbjn. Here, the machinery is adjusted to burst an eyeball too, as Clooney's mysterious assassin fidgets with his antagonist's gun, sending the bullet intended for him back into her eye. Audiences were apoplectic with what Clooney and Corbijn gave them. But The American, like Drive, is concerned with a dying kind of filmmaking, much like the nearly extinct species of butterfly in Corbjn's picture. The American assassin goes to brothels as we go to movie theaters, looking for sensation. But he leads us by example, being an active participant by going down on his prostitute. He is not just a passive consumer looking for titillation. In pictures like Drive and Taxi Driver, bloodletting is a part of the dialectic.
In the New Hollywood, this is the motive of Peckinpah’s contemporaries and children, like Arthur Penn, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, and Oliver Stone, while the underground horror and action films of Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Larry Cohen, and Walter Hill drew from a similar method that was even more extreme. In recent years, David Cronenberg, with A History of Violence (2005), restates Peckinpah's intention. When cafe owner Tom Stahl (Viggo Mortensen), the individual wearing the mask of the upright small-town family man, impulsively protects his employees and customers from two violent criminals, acting fast and killing them both, Cronenberg decisively elongates the sequence by making sure his camera lingers on the bodies affected by violence: a face blown apart and gurgling, or later on in the film, William Hurt in a close-up, a thick pool of blood slowly spreading beneath him. There are ramifications to violence and a politics to the body that cinema too often overlooks in its adulation of videogame fantasy. The essential fact of our existence is the body, and it is ignorant to disentangle ourselves from a responsibility to it after desecration. As audiences, we have a history of sick sadism, and filmmakers have let us off too easy with our complicit blood crimes. We learn that Tom Stahl is indeed a criminal sociopath, the Philadelphia gangster Joey Cusack, in hiding for 20 years, successfully inventing a new identity. But in the context of A History of Violence, his identity is our identity of repressed wish-fulfillment. As the lights go down in the auditorium, is it possible that in our minds we are all natural born killers?
Cronenberg appropriately followed up A History of Violence with Eastern Promises (2007), where Mortensen played a character very much like Drive’s protagonist (to identify himself he says, “I’m just the driver”). With tattoos denoting Russian gangster lineages, along with codes hidden in disposed bodies (the way a victim’s fingers have been sliced off, for example), the body is something always to be interpreted, a self present in death. Eastern Promises anticipates Drive’s utensil-in-the-eye, marrying the audience’s scopophiliac relationship to violent entertainment, when Mortensen’s driver, nude in a public bath, fights off two assassins, finishing one of them off with a knife through the eyeball. Cronenberg confronts our scopophilia directly, as so many people will be looking closely at this scene (basically, and Cronenberg knows this, because people want to see the movie star Viggo Mortensen's naughty bits). The transgression of curiosity, coupled with action catharsis, is duly punished with our eventual disgust.
Why are we so thrilled by violence in cinema, as action movies are so popular? Yet with ultraviolent films, which may have less violence but more blood than popular entertainments, why is there a social need to condemn them? Clearly, Rambo and The Transporter are more irresponsible than A History of Violence and Drive. Is it because those more decadent entertainments keep the wall between viewer and violence concretely drawn? Whereas, for example in A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, and Natural Born Killers, the filmmakers seek to ironically draw attention to our position as moviegoers at an atrocity exhibition (as Alex says in A Clockwork Orange, “It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen”)? Are we able to separate ourselves from the image and not get lost in the forest of fantasy? Are we frightened because of the thrill we feel, making us complicit with the sociopathology of a deranged person?
During the Drive opening, we are with the Driver in his inconspicuous getaway vehicle, fleeing the police as two thieves sit like spectators – doubling for us – in the backseat. Driver doesn’t turn down his radio to concentrate; rather, he turns it up as a basketball game is in progress. The commentator announces, “The fans are loving it and are on their feet!” And Refn is right - we are on our feet during this invigorating prologue. This gives us a pointed sense of Drive’s thrust, much like what Tarantino was doing with the cinema climax of Inglourious Basterds. Both Tarantino and Refn seek to entertain us, but they deliberately give us cognitive dissonance in return. There is something blood-curdling – for me – in watching the Nazis violently die and burn in the movie theater, where moments earlier they were cheering while watching their own enemies die on screen. Tarantino knows that members in his audience will be euphoric during this sadistic conclusion, and he also knows the more thoughtful moviegoer will pay heed to the overwhelming irony (and more overwhelming when so many viewers do not get it). Earlier, Aldo Rains (Brad Pitt) explains that seeing a Nazi beaten to death with a baseball bat “is the closest we get to going to the movies.” But Tarantino doesn’t treat his Nazis like cardboard characters (other than Hitler and Goebbels, who are both cartoonish in their villainy -- but in the same way as Rains is cartoonishly heroic). The grammar of a film changes how we adopt sympathy and apply antipathy. It controls us with filmic language the same way that Christoph Waltz’s more complicated Nazi uses his mastery of words to accomplish tasks. The history of cinema shows the tangled web of propagandic identification with recurring cycles of genocide and terror: references to King Kong (shown to be a metaphor for the experience of Negro in America), Native American insurgencies, and tying the Basterds to Islamic freedom fighters (i.e. “Terrorists”) by using music cues from The Battle of Algiers. Suddenly, the vengeance at the Parisian cinema is more twisted, particularly after the decade preceding Basterds' release. It is demonstrating the truth of our own history of violence on a screen and through a screen.
PSYCHOPATH AS AESTHETE
I think a difficulty beyond “artiness” and “violence” that Drive is having with mainstream audiences has to do with its strangeness, something that makes us uncomfortable in the same way that Irene is made uncomfortable by witnessing the Driver stomps a thug’s face to bits in an elevator. This follows a suspended slow-motion moment of pure aesthetic heightening, when the Driver passionately kissed Irene. The sudden reversal is damaging to our human logic. Beyond the tough loners that Gosling seems to effortlessly absorb in his performance – Brando, Dean, Newman, Eastwood, and McQueen – there are antisocial dysfunctions in ego-gratifying iconic emulations. We may think of Kit (Martin Sheen) in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, compared repeatedly to James Dean, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from Taxi Driver, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) from Manhunter, or from Peeping Tom, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm). Drive is about a man who may have watched too many movies.
The pathology connects to the aesthetic. Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) has a very mannered quality regarding its look and sound. The film treats the nature of movie images in an aesthetic appropriate to the serial killer Dollarhyde, who is making his own internal movie and responding to it. The colors and sounds of Manhunter show how the filmmaker is putting his idiosyncratic stamp on a moment, establishing his own authorial identity, the same way Dollarhyde does through murder. The picture is its own perfected construct of “becoming,” until the conclusion, when the form begins to disassemble. The SWAT team attacks Dollarhyde’s house, and the edits become markedly disjointed, the consonance between images incoherent. The film is Dollarhyde’s mind and maze, channeled by a film director (Michael Mann) with fetishistic similarities to the killer, along with a forensic specialist, Will Graham (William Petersen), adopting those same habits of seeing things in order to catch his prey. The audience becomes ensnared in the web of formal control and construction. Drive is so caught up in its romanticism that we forget the preposterousness of the elevator scene, where time slows down and the lights go up in high saturation. This also, I think, flies in the face of Thomas Rogers' assertion that Drive offers little in the way of romance. What's stunning is that though Drive calls attention to the potential delusion behind this film's heart, the experience of the heightened emotions feels more real than most other Hollywood love stories -- maybe precisely because we are guided by an individual's psychological mechanisms in worship of the illusion. With Cliff Martinez’ ambient music, the elevator kiss moment is nothing if not pure elation: the ingredients of cinema come together in perfect harmony, creating something above nature. And then, so quickly, the action reverts to real time and the Driver kills the thug standing next to him, splattering brain matter on the floor.
In Manhunter, Will Graham dreams of his wife (Kim Greist), with every angle, degree of focus, and sound (essentially just the ethereal synth) working to create a preternatural sensation of emotional ascendancy. This is quickly followed by real-time cuts, as the crime photographs Graham has been investigating, featuring hacked-up victims with mirrors for eyeballs, are splayed all over, making a young girl next to him cry in horror. Graham is doubling for Dollarhyde, a psychopath seeking to elevate himself above a stunted identity and low self-esteem, his ego aspiring to make himself manifest a William Blake painting of the Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun. Through his cerebral cortex, the world is transfigured and made cinematic. His crime scenes seat a fresh audience, and Graham explains that in his fantasies, Dollarhyde becomes someone “who is wanted and desired and accepted” -- much like the Driver yearns to be a “Real Hero” and “Real Human Being.” Francis Dollarhyde, the Tooth Fairy, whose forceful new wave soundtrack accompaniments of “Strong as I Am” and “This Big Hush” could easily translate to the Driver 25 years later on, exists alone in his mind, dreaming to be a part of the families he watches. He works at a photo lab, surrounded by images of domestic fulfillment, and invades the houses of those happy “real” people, butchering the families, then rearranging the corpses in a way where he can see himself reflected as a loved head-of-household, placing shards of broken mirrors in the victims’ eyes.
Dollarhyde’s sensibility is attached to Michael Mann’s directorial vision, which some confuse for “style over substance,” that tired Neanderthal criticism of so many lazy viewers who lack imagination. Manhunter is hyper-aestheticized in terms of its look and sound. But that connects to Dollarhyde's tragedy. He can’t control his imagination. Finding love with a blind woman, Reba (Joan Allen), this psychopathic voyeur cannot resist remolding reality around her. “You look so good in the sun,” he tells her in a morning-after embrace, also wanting to keep her out of his house (for her own good, given his uncontrollable impulses); she perfectly fits his sought archetype of the Woman Clothed in the Sun. He aestheticizes her, like the Driver does to Irene, and she is perfect. But later on, peering at Reba from his van, Dollarhyde's mind again reconstructs reality. He sees Reba’s coworker and escort as her lover, the two being framed in oversaturated light and embracing in slow motion. This moment is echoed in Drive when the Driver embraces Irene in the elevator. Given the time of this kiss (the elevator ride did not take this long earlier in the film), and the way Refn romanticizes the moment, one should mark that it does not necessarily happen in reality. It’s a cinematic moment directed by Driver in his mind, matching the groove that Refn – who is as fetishistic as Michael Mann – also finds irresistible, the same way the Driver does.
The Driver connects to other pathological voyeurs trapped in their own private scopophiliac minotaur mazes, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom. In all of these films, there is a triangulation between the protagonist (or anti-hero/antagonist, given that Dollarhyde is the quarry – and double – of Manhunter’s hero), objects of desire, and film itself, and so the audience is left with a reflection on how images may affect them. Travis Bickle is tragically alone (his pathology is presumably far less severe than Dollarhyde’s), but he spends a lot of time watching pornographic films (though not for an erotic outlet) and television. He frames the beautiful blond Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) as a heroine in need of rescue, casting himself as the hero. When that doesn’t work out, his solipsistic rage takes over. He could easily become a monstrous political assassin, but switches his wrath of God vengeance onto gangsters and pimps, saving another heroine in distress, the prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), whose name refers to vision. Travis is celebrated as a hero by society, though we know the dark reality of his nature. Travis simply rewrote his psychopathic narrative, switching his enemy's avatar away from a populist political candidate, and onto a nest of underworld vermin.
Travis Bickle was in part based on John Wayne, particularly Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. He predates the Driver's cinematic lineage of perverse heroic identification. Dollarhyde’s fragile and overcompensating ego is fueled by watching home films of stable nuclear families, something denied to him given his own natural dysfunctions as an abused child. Like the other protagonists of both Scorsese and Mann, the respective problems of Bickle and Dollarhyde are rooted in an impossible desire to belong, and when that cannot be satisfied, they compensate by being supermen, embracing their isolation and aloneness. They are compelled by the forceful singularity of their vision. They want to be both functional human beings with normal human relationships and heroically justified. But it is impossible to be both.
One is either a “real human being” or a “real hero.” Jesus Christ himself, for example in The Last Temptation of Christ, desires his messianic vocation just as he desperately yearns to have a normal life with love, children, and happiness – which incidentally becomes Satan’s last temptation for him. In Mann’s Thief, Frank (James Caan) has constructed a collage for his ideal existence, including a house, his best friend, a beautiful wife, and children. But the only way for him to catch up on his lost time is by doing his “magic act” as a safe cracker. He makes a Faustian bargain to become this “real” person with a crime boss, Leo (Robert Prosky), who sets up scores and bankrolls a large house for Frank and his wife (Tuesday Weld), and arranges an otherwise impossible adoption of a child. But this “real” existence is a fabrication, controlled by Leo who “owns a paper on [Frank’s] whole fucking life.” Jesus can save the world from Satan if he chooses to renounce his life and die for the sins of humankind on the cross; Frank can save his wife and child only by walking away from them and embracing nihilistic anonymity. The other option is the obliteration of identity. Madness is transcendence.
BRONSON, VALHALLA RISING, and DRIVE
Heroes and Human Beings are exclusive of each other. The desire to be both is at the heart of Drive, and Refn’s work generally. Bronson (2008) casts Tom Hardy as Michael Peterson, Britain’s most violent prisoner. In dramatizing true events, Refn makes Peterson a young man who wants to be famous, a “rock and roll star." He addresses an audience in clown (and Bowie-esque Aladdin Sane) makeup, singing to them over projected images of documentary footage. Convicted, Peterson grows to like incarceration, seeing his cell as a “hotel room,” a private habitat of the mind, while he can still release his aggression by battling guards and other inmates, nourishing his rage with the physical pain he gets in return. Peterson finds himself exiled from his beloved “hotel room” when he’s sent to an insane asylum, his violent habits being dulled through tyrannical medications. His quest is to get back in his "hotel room," but after being reevaluated as “sane,” he’s released into the real world.
Exploited by a promoter, Peterson makes his name as an underground fighter. He ceases to be Michael Peterson and instead adopts the persona of a Hollywood vigilante, Charles Bronson. He is, so it is hoped, born again as a new self that befits his nature. He has a suitable profession and begins a sexual relationship with a stripper. In love and on the verge of “success” (if we were to consider Street Fighting a fulfilling vocation, as he may), a normal life seems possible. But after telling the stripper that he loves her, she informs him of other plans involving a fiancé with a better vehicle and more ambition. Bronson throws away the prospects for his new life. He robs a jewelry store to prove his love, is again rejected, and awaits arrest.
This is Peterson/Bronson’s place. He isn’t meant to exist as a real human being with normal relationships; he doesn’t understand it any more than Frank does in Mann's Thief. He becomes a creative nihilist. Back in prison, Bronson is encouraged to be an artist, which social workers will use as proof of rehabilitation. He is a classical aesthete, but the world is his canvas and frame for superstardom and communication. He takes his social worker hostage, making his victim the work of art. His brutality is a bizarre mirror for the way the film Bronson’s aesthetic pummels the audience, its own roots in what Kubrick did with A Clockwork Orange, where Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is also an aesthete (albeit with much more cunning). When Bronson’s done with his art, having painted the social worker to his satisfaction, he says, “That’s enough,” releases his captive, and prepares for his beating and solitary confinement. Bronson and Bronson, the film and the character, assume several masks on the journey, but though the character has fulfilled his dream of stardom, the price is being a naked, whimpering creature trapped in a claustrophobic cell. Assuming his role as a transcendent figure, "Charles Bronson," he displays his own "death wish."
Hardy’s voluminous performance as this enigmatic thug is propelled by his embrace of sheer, naked physicality. His body exerts dominance over other bodies. In attempting to tame himself and adapt to societal norms, sometimes looking like a primping dandy (“Cup of tea?”), a rebuke or rejection of Bronson is greeted with a slow audible exhalation, as if his flesh was volcanically releasing steam before an eruption (Hardy’s Bronson reminds me of Oliver Reed’s characterization of the war god Vulcan in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – pure grunting testosterone humorously juxtaposed against a neoclassicism). Bronson’s mastery of flesh, his own and others, is his method to perverse superstardom. His constant state of rushing adrenaline reflects Refn’s stylistic approaches, as even in the film's calmer moments it threatens to explode. Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini are conjoined with Scott Walker, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, and Glass Candy on the soundtrack. There is an urgent need in Bronson for Refn to, through image and music, let you know how he – the director – is feeling the material in all of its humor and ecstasy, just as Bronson beats his identity onto the world. There is a merciless volume to it all.
Refn followed up with Valhalla Rising (2009), a Viking odyssey that highly contrasts with Bronson’s bullying aesthetic, adopting instead a muted and dream-like calm in its images of dismembered flesh. Refn has his influences drawn from Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev), Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and Malick (The New World), as a handheld widescreen camera follows the mysterious prisoner “One Eye” (Mads Mikkelsen), forced to fight other captives to the death. The opening informs us that “in the beginning there was only man and nature.” The religious drive is of great interest to Refn, and his heroes seek to elevate above that binary of man and nature. Bronson is pure physicality, but his absurd embrace of artful aggression is a validation of the ego, taking him above the reducible world of crime and the insane asylum of base humanity, where inmates defecate into their hands and peruse their shit. Though conceived as a midnight-movie, Valhalla Rising is a religious picture, with the insinuation that One Eye may be the Norse god Odin, reborn as a human being (linking Norse mythology to Christianity). He is silent with superhuman alacrity and precision, following dreams towards his destiny as a willing sacrifice to Native Americans who club him to death.
Like in Drive, death is not an end. It is transcendence, a door leading to a new world or private ecstasy. Valhalla Rising anticipates Drive’s possible insinuation that this same transcendence is found in movies. The graphic violence in Valhalla Rising (we see one character’s abdomen torn open by One Eye, the guts spilling out in a grisly fashion from which the camera doesn’t at all pan away) is cognizant of how we watch it. Like the audience doubles in Drive, the thieves in the backseat during the opening sequence, the Vikings who hold One Eye prisoner assume our fascinated theatrical voyeurism. These Vikings are not like the spectators in films like Gladiator, cheering the action; they resemble a film audience, watching silently but not turning away.
The hero is feeding us the action, telling the narrative where to go, guided by his dreams. One Eye communicates by looking at a child, who then interprets what One Eye is thinking: One Eye is cinema. The Christian warriors who have taken One Eye with them on their Holy Land journey are like stranded film characters, wondering about their fates. And indeed, to read reviews of Valhalla Rising is to see critics not grappling with the irony of how their plot expectations mirror the frustrations of the travelers, who have searched for their own glory in the Holy Land but have washed ashore on the fertile and strange Hell of America.
In the post-modern terrain of Drive, Refn reminds us that film is our new mythology, and so characters traverse between the lines of reality and filmdom the same way Valhalla Rising’s warriors dwell in terrestrial spaces and the land of gods, where Hell is real and dreams are messages from the Other Side. Part of Drive’s appeal is how, unlike the cheap rib-nudging humor in films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, it does not smugly laugh at its own references. It absorbs them like a mythology, repainting the dreams of Hollywood while undulating as its own New Myth. The Driver certainly has his precedents in our celluloid iconography, sane and mad, Dirty Harry and Scorpio, Michael Mann and Kenneth Anger. But because of Gosling’s performance, an uncanny creation in its paradox of mechanical reliability and vulnerable Frankenstein Creature maladjustments, the Driver is a new classic film character. Retreading back to the bloody elevator, after Irene has walked away in horror from the Driver’s boiled-over rage, Refn shows the Driver breathing in slow motion, the Scorpion on his back seeming to be a living entity after its impulses have fed on prey. The Driver transcends his references and becomes a new cinema god.
HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
The allure of Tarantino, a child of the video store, was how perfectly he dwelled in the terrain of familiar images, fusing a creative sensibility with a machine that ran a scale from Godard to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Leone to Modesty Blaise, Foxy Brown to "Like a Virgin." This pop-culture machine created him along with all Generation X. That’s why Pulp Fiction was so successful; it was uncanny in how it made the familiar pop culture ornaments, which had perpetually been in the periphery, strangely pronounced in its fiction. Jack Rabbit Slim’s Restaurant was less a physical space than an archeological dig into our collective popular unconscious. In 1994, coupled with Oliver Stone's Tarantino-conceived Natural Born Killers, popular culture became a trendy intellectual frontier. The peril with the drug is that in a world of addicts – and Geek Culture proves how thoroughly postmodern we have become – the isolated spirit shuts down creatively. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World showed how the meditative gateway of screen and person was eradicated. It was Natural Born Killers without reflective irony. We are now so addicted to the consolations of silly irony that the otherworldly spirit of the drug has become more like a cheap pill that placates us with amusement. The filmmaker in our heads doesn’t need to create anymore. That outlet is fulfilled by the post-post-post modern.
The Driver is lost in his own collective fantasies of filmic history and iconography, but given the way he draws it out for us (remember his self-penciled map), he is a creative participant in his delusions, which is what makes him so attractive. The world of Drive is fascinating in its beautiful canvas because it still feels new, which is possibly an incentive of having a Danish filmmaker run wild throughout Los Angeles, by now all too familiar to us through movies and television. The Michael Mann similarities here continue, as Refn has Mann’s awed sensibility to an environment, re-creating something old through the camera eye. Like Heat and Collateral, or even the 1930s in Public Enemies (where the shores of Lake Michigan look like the surface of the moon), Refn’s Drive is fascinated with environments the same way solitary travelers are when discovering new lands. It resembles the approach of Werner Herzog (whose The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is similarly amazed with a tired setting and genre), taking things that only he has seen, and through his craft making those things visible. Los Angeles is not a city. It’s a holy abstraction, and when the Driver looks out his window, I can’t help but see Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in Heat, restless in his blank apartment similarly void of picture frames and personal attachments, looking out at the ocean with a magnificent longing.
The Driver, like the audience, is safe by the window -- or the screen. But when the plot shifts gears, and gangster assassins surround a hotel room where he’s held up with the duplicitous moll Blanche, the window is busted open. The lines between fantasy and reality are broken, baptized in blood. The Driver kills his assailants with stunning reflexivity, his face streaked with red. He looks behind him and sees that bathroom window, shot open, the air blowing in. The screen has opened up and his badass fairy tale unfurls.
The prevalence of frames in Drive relates the irony of film viewing to our personal responses to Refn’s work. While the Driver’s apartment lacks any frames or wall ornaments, Irene’s place is plentiful with them. The Driver’s first visit there is key to letting us know how the picture is communicating its theme of interior moviemaking within a subjective character’s head. The Driver gazes at Irene, the image resting on her for an elongated moment. She smiles back at him (that smile is repeated several times throughout the picture), and then Refn cuts back to the Driver, looking. Irene’s position in the composition replaced by the framed painting of roses, resting on the wall behind the Driver. The implication is that he is framing and creating the character of Irene. Refn is feeding a lot of visual information in place of spoken words (one of the persistent criticisms from audience members has to do with how little these people verbalize). It also makes Irene a more interesting character, being that Mulligan is playing much more than a functionary object of desire for the male hero. The character’s totality is a telling one, where she must exist as the construct of the main character’s consciousness.
For example, look at how Irene is separated from the content of the pictures behind her. In all of the photos that decorate the apartment, Benicio is with Standard, but Irene is absent, as if the Driver were keeping her separate from her own nuclear family, so that she can belong to him. Only when Standard is dead, and Irene is being interrogated by the police, do we see her in a picture with her husband (and that picture is out of focus). Going back to that amazing scene in the hallway, between Standard, the Driver, Irene, and Benicio, the blocking, framing, and cutting is very specific in how Refn, in identifying with the Driver, decisively keeps his leading lady at a distance from the husband.
Irene is a dream projection, the Driver’s relationship to her constructed of gazes and counter-gazes, with reassuring and maternal smiles of warmth, compassion, and comfort for him. This is the same stuff that dreams – and movies – are made of. It is not necessarily any kind of sociocultural “gender theory” criticism by Refn. I think the way that he frames, edits, and scores this relationship, as the Driver is given a taste of what it means to be a “real human being,” conveys what we yearn for in our escapist moviegoing. Certainly, the bald stunt mask of the Driver, by which so many people are befuddled, may have its own reference to another B-movie directed by a European coming to Hollywood, Total Recall by Paul Verhoeven, where Arnold Schwarzenegger wears a similar mask on his wish-fulfilling action-hero journey to Mars, an adventure in which the audience is given no concrete boundaries in distinguishing the real from the manufactured.
Another film to which I believe Refn is alluding is Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), a Los Angeles noir where Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (a magnificent Elliot Gould) drifts through a mystery with the social unrest of the 1970s on the periphery. Drive’s scene of a death at the nocturnal ocean shore, as the Driver chases the doomed Nino in the waves, is reminiscent of The Long Goodbye’s climax, where Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) disappears into the night sea (Refn anticipates the scene with a painting of the restless ocean in the apartment building hallway – another frame within a frame). Altman’s film begins and ends with the song “Hooray for Hollywood,” and the norms of noir playfully decorate the story, as Marlowe seems to dance above the action in his “It’s okay with me” passivity, and a security guard does impressions of Jimmy Stewart and Barbara Stanwyck for people passing through a gate.
Altman is interested in the dark side of our moviegoing interests, and when he shoots his first scene of violence, it is pointedly similar to the jolt of Drive’s pawn shop turning point. The main gangster heavy in The Long Goodbye, Marty Augustine, is played by a film director, Mark Rydell, a casting decision that resembles what Refn does with putting Albert Brooks – another Jewish actor and director who is deliberately playing against type – in the role of Drive’s villain. In The Long Goodbye, which has been bloodless and humorous up to his appearance, Augustine has some comic banter with Marlow, and then unexpectedly – and with pronounced altered film speed – smashes a beer bottle into the face of his beautiful and innocent model girlfriend. It is one of the most unexpectedly horrific scenes I've ever experienced in a film, as up to then I had been as easy-going as Marlowe. Now the viewer is jolted out of the comfort zone and wakes up to the direness of Marlowe's situation. He's a lost participant in the mystery movie, which is the price one pays for being a main character.
There's also the sociopolitical subtext that these genre noirs often smuggle in, to which we can clearly find reference in The Long Goodbye with Altman's interest in tense racial relations, arrests at riots, pot smoking, and Marlowe's beautiful hippie-dippy neighbors. Hollywood becomes America. Certainly Drive's influences have political subtexts all over. In Thief, Frank confronts his exploiter Leo by paraphrasing Marx's labor theory of value. He is punished by his employer and told to "get back to work," sparking his nihilistic "worker's revolt." In film noir, individuals are less sick than the twisted apparatus governing the universe. Could Refn be giving reference to the current economic recession, where the exploited are unable to get a leg up, because even their exploiters have to answer to someone higher up? Shannon, while wearing an American flag T-shirt, jokes to Irene that he's "been exploiting" the Driver since he started working for him. The Driver works - mechanic, stuntman, getaway driver, and has little interest in making a profit, while for Shannon money is key. Shannon doesn't do any of the work, but he takes home half of the Driver's stuntwork pay.
Does Shannon have much choice? His business takes home only $30,000 a year after taxes. He has to branch out and ask Bernie (Madhoff?) for help, which means being in debt to some people who have hurt him before (in essence castrating him by breaking his groin). Standard also has no choice in going back to work for the Man, because of his debts for prison protection. Interest has made $5,000 into $10,000, and then $30,000. It's impossible for anyone to catch up (a theme in the Dennis Haysbert subplot of Mann's Heat, where an exploited parolee chooses to go back to his old life as getaway driver for Neil McCauley's crew). The rich can stay rich by keeping the poor perpetually in debt, struggling in a pit where they destroy each other. We notice the triad of American flags behind the Driver when he tells the goon that abuses Standard, Cook (James Biberi), that after this job, "his debt's paid." The struggling poor have to sell their stuff to pawn shops - where "God Bless America" is largely painted on the wall - while also robbing the same establishment. The job is fixed and the money will go to whomever is driving the fancier cars.
The spirit of movies reflects the spirit of late capitalism, one of the points that connects - and opposes - Bernie to the Driver. The Driver has been nurtured by the dreams of the establishment, and he thrives on those soulful ideals, but Bernie actually manufactured them. He was a big action film producer in the 1980s, making a product that made him a lot of money, even though he thought it was shitty. Profitable movie production seamlessly became criminal enterprises (an element in Tarantino's screenplay for Tony Scott's True Romance, a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a dopey film and comic book geek who becomes an action hero, the final chief antagonist being a movie-producer with narcotic connections). With the advent of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson in the 1980s, the action movie lineage to the 1970s diverged. Successful action films have since become a large, money-churning institution, driven by cynicism, far, far away from Sam Peckinpah. There's a callous soulless void to Michael Bay, expert as he is at his work. The complex human fascination within the glossy money machine, seen in Walter Hill's The Driver, Mann's films, or William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA, never fared as well and continues to struggle. The hope at the end of Drive is that the corpse can keep the bag of money, while the dying Driver, the ghost in the machine, coasts into immortality, cruising with stealth on wheels of art. Maybe it's impossible for us to be "real human beings" and be successful in this system. We have to lose a great part of ourselves, like Shannon, in adjusting our dreams to the machine.
UNDER THE SPELL OF MUSIC
During the credits of The Long Goodbye, Altman plays a song titled “The Long Goodbye,” written by John Williams and Johnnie Mercer, not unlike the theme from legions of films. But it’s part of Altman’s humor, as the song is replayed in different manners throughout the whole film, whether as a non-diagetic theme playing over the credits, a diagetic piece performed by a pianist in a bar, or as the bland music we hear in a grocery mart, as Marlow looks for cat food. What is music’s function here? For Altman, it’s made visible in its invisibility. The world of the film is distinct from reality and we’re being played the emotional chords for a place that has its own character, be it the construct of Philip Marlowe, at times mumbling the story to himself like his own narrator, or the omniscient and benevolent filmmaker Robert Altman.
Music in Drive is similarly a function of character. It is synthetic, but beautiful, much like the plastic world of the film, longing to be real like the picture’s theme song, “A Real Hero” by the French electronic band College, movingly played over the idyllic moments between the Driver, Irene, and Benicio, and then at the end, as the Driver moves into the night, and probably like a pale rider into the afterlife of his electric cinema dreams. After the opening, Refn’s credit sequence is scored to Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx’s “Nightcall,” where the programmed beats and electronic melody is overpowering in its sonic saturation. The filmmaker wants you to feel the music, the same way a nightclub DJ wants you to sway with it, or to quote David Bowie’s song “DJ,” “I am a DJ, I am what I play / I got believers believing me.” The “Nightcall” lyrics tell us – through electronic vox distortion – “I’m giving you a nightcall to tell you how I feel / I want to drive you through the night down the hills / I’m going to tell you something you don’t want to hear / I’m going to show you where it’s dark, but have no fear.” This reflects both what Refn wishes to do and what the Driver, a cinematic framer and filmmaker in his own head, is doing. The strange music is part of the dialectic with viewer, and instrumental to the character’s transcendence – and a pathological need to dominate. "Nightcall," played against the pink neon cursive credit fonts, is so bizarre for us, that this opening successfully serves as entryway into a new world.
This is how both Mann and Scorsese use music in their pictures, where it reflects the intentions of the filmmaker and the longings of the lonely protagonists. According to Scorsese, quoted recently while discussing his upcoming George Harrison documentary, “Music was transcendent in my life...It took me to another level, to another place—images, fantasies, stories, people, colors—everything came to mind. And that’s how I did my work. Through this music. It was like cinema. It made me live another way; it made me think another way.” Mann pioneered the use of electronic music, first in Thief, where he actually says he would have preferred a blues score, but the sound of Tangerine Dream was more appropriate in relating to the metallic maze of the main character’s physical and psychological world, where he, much like the Driver in Drive, seeks to invent his own reality and happiness, far from the organic processes of Nature. Mann would even manipulate the sound effects in the movie to be in the same key as the score, the lines between non-diagetic film score and the “reality” of the film being broken and blurred. We see this later on in Manhunter, as the 8-track of Dollarhyde’s Iron Butterfly recording is elevated above the stereo in his house and becomes the sonic mirror to the climax’s intensity and dissolution. The cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) in Collateral also finds repose from urban decay in the world of his dreams and imagination (embodied in a postcard of the Maldives), and has an interesting scene where the music that plays on the car stereo is not the music on the film’s soundtrack. We know that he and his ride (Jada Pinkett-Smith) are talking about classical music, but we hear the romantic projections of Max’s head, Groove Armada’s hybrid of electronic and soul, “Hands of Time” (played with aerial shots of Los Angeles that Refn will duplicate in Drive). Music serves an intellectual function for a carefully active viewer, that brings us closer to a scrutinization of the film’s identity as a film, which is to say a manufactured product constructed of machinery and technology, projected as a sound and vision dream that carries an uncanny degree of verisimilitude, and which in turn creates our own reality outside of the theater, as we actively turn the real world into a self-made movie with our own music choices.
The scorpion jacket recalls the fetish art of Kenneth Anger and his groundbreaking film Scorpio Rising (1964), described by Anger as his "death mirror to American culture." Anger pioneered the ironic use of popular music in motion pictures, using Elvis, Ricky Nelson, The Crystals, Bobby Vinton, and the Shangri-Las, among others, as the soundtrack for fetishistic images of leather-clad motorcyclists working on their machines, one of them (Scorpio) desecrating a church. Anger was interested in pop iconography, as his subculture characters - much like Refn's Driver - emulate figures like James Dean and Marlon Brando. As a social figure, Anger undercut that iconography with his steep knowledge of Hollywood's dark side, which he published as the book Hollywood Babylon. The way that Anger used a soundtrack hooked into the currents of popular culture, while also invigorating his images. Movies like Scorpio Rising are pleasant listening, not just because of the songs, but how the music relates to or juxtaposes against the images, and then how the images are also working against each other, as Anger cuts in footage from a Christ biopic. He heavily influenced the art of what would become the Music Video, and in the narrative filmmakers he influenced, be it Scorsese, Lynch, Mann, Jonathan Demme, John Waters, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, etc, there are several sequences that play like music tracks. Music drawn from culture is an active participant, as is the iconography tied to that music.
Refn's pop sources meld perfectly with Drive's original music by Cliff Martinez, a richly textured ambient wall. Martinez’ score also recalls Mann’s Heat, reminding me of Elliot Goldenthal’s original music, ambient techno tracks by Brian Eno and William Orbit, and even having grinding machinery be instrumentalized, just as we hear Einsteunde Neubauten’s “Armenia” in Heat. Drive’s sound is not meant to be a novelty joke, but correlates to its influences, the machine-like disposition of the Driver, and the synthesized nature of filmmaking, where the fabricated reality of cinema might not be real, but can still feel real in how it moves us, for example as we have in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where the conclusion, scored to the synth of Angelo Badalamenti and Lynch’s “Mysteries of Love,” centers around a robotic bird, with a similarly remote-controlled insect in its mouth. The symbols for both Good and Evil are man-made, and yet the beauty of the film’s ending reveals a transcendent ingenuity in that creativity.
In the moment before the tense apartment hallway confrontation, we see the Driver in his blank-walled apartment toiling away on his machinery. The dreamy song “Under Your Spell” by Desire is muffled through the walls. The music takes us somewhere else, just as it takes him. Cut to Irene’s apartment, where the song is a gorgeously thick wall of sound, adjusting itself when Standard addresses the attendees of his party. Cut to Irene in close-up as the camera slowly moves in on her. She looks on but her spirit is elsewhere, the music amping up again and linking her – and the film – to the Driver. In his apartment again, the music is no longer muffled. The music has ascended beyond its diagetic roots to become the sonic voice of the film. The lyrics, repeating “You’ve got me under your spell,” detail the rapture of what a film score can do to us, which is the same thing that happens to the characters in the story. We are under the spell of a filmmaker using his mechanical tools (with which the Driver fidgets during this sequence) to take us in the backseat of his car, exerting power over us while he creates. The function of art takes us away from Nature (“I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I do nothing but think of you”) in this broad electronic canvas of mannerism. As Scorsese quoted Capra, we are addicted to our disease of spellbound enticement. This is what Drive is about. It is a beautiful, electronic madness.
OF GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS
Hammered into the architecture of a film is the question of Character, the masks that the individuals wear in a story to move the story ahead. It is imbued through our relationship to the history of film, how we have been conditioned to ingest stories and myths, and how we are prepared – or not prepared – to respond. The Driver, a close viewing makes evident, is probably a psychopathic character, but as we are sutured into this film by him, under his spell, we identify with him and even feel his longing. It helps that his victims are not families of innocents, but as with Travis Bickle, thugs and bad guys who have their demises coming. The Driver is our good guy, though if I link the picture to The Long Goodbye, in Altman's film it is the conniving two-faced villain, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), who is putting on those same racing gloves that the Driver wears, not Marlowe. People compare the Driver to Clint Eastwood, but he wears the sign of Scorpio, Eastwood's nemesis in Dirty Harry. We might think of Mann's Collateral, where the chump taxi driver with big dreams is exploited by both his boss and "the badass sociopath in his backseat," hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise). In order to survive, Max must assume Vincent's bad-ass role, relying on the appropriated reputation of a killer that his telling a thug to put his gun down "or else I'm going to beat his bitch-ass to death with it," will work like a key to acquiring some needed information -- and his life.
We are reliant on labels that help us identify the nature of a character. Benicio and the Driver watch cartoons together. Driver asks Benicio, “Is he a bad guy?” “Yes.” “Why is he a bad guy?” “He’s a shark.” “No sharks are good guys?” Moments earlier, Benicio demonstrated how the mask of a character determined how we respond to them, as he approaches the Driver with a menacing Jack-o-Lantern face. Albert Brooks is not our idea of a vicious heavy, but we see how he can quickly become one by sticking a fork into a victim’s eye (and so sticking a metaphorical fork into our own eyes as an audience, familiar with the dopey Albert Brooks of Defending Your Life, Broadcast News, and Lost in America). Even he is disappointed to be playing this role. He explains to Shannon that he really wanted to have his name on a winning racing car, which would add a whole new face to him, obscuring the violent thug that his familiars know him as. Having Brooks play a gangster is knowingly equivalent to his character eating Chinese food at an Italian pizza place, itself owned by the Jewish Nino.
The exterior of a person, or an object like a racing car, is malleable. “It’s the inside that counts, right?” says Bernie, inquiring about the banged up racing car he just paid $300,000 to purchase from Shannon. Nino dislikes this argument, saying that if paid such money for a vehicle he would want people to see the money. He walks over to a flashier car in Shannon’s garage. “Like this – this is one fine ass pussymobile!” It doesn’t matter how it drives. One can bring the “pussymobile” dynamics of Shannon’s garage back to the reservations some viewers have about Irene’s development of a character. The cars are all referred to as women by Shannon. When Irene visits with her own troubled vehicle, Shannon says, “Park her in number three,” then turns to Irene and smiles, “Not you, the car.” After the Driver’s first long encounter with Irene, Refn cuts to the garage as Shannon says, “Don’t worry about her bumps and bruises.” At first, one might think that Shannon is giving paternal advice to the Driver about a woman who has had a rough life, with a convict husband and raising a child mostly on her own. But it’s Shannon discussing the racing car with Bernie and Nino. There is a symbiotic relationship established between Irene and the vehicles. She is a fetish object of the imagination the same way a flashy vehicle is. The curves of a machine define the function. Shannon, after all, has a woman's name and is basically castrated, having had his groin busted years ago by Nino's thugs.
Standard also has a curious name, and in an anecdote of his first meeting with Irene, we learn that after introducing himself to her, she responded by saying, "Where's the deluxe version?" As a character, Standard is a design, a vehicle, a model, his usefulness dictated by his title (just as a number, Irene's age at the time of their first meeting - 17 - immediately, and mechanically, makes his sexual relationship to her "illegal"). Irene is a construct of the Driver's head -- and so a functional unit of the movie Drive. Indeed, the way the Driver acts make him seem machine like, and the way he peers over Shannon's corpse -- itself displaying a tattoo on the neck that looks like a Frankenstein bolt -- is oddly like poor Edward Scissorhands looking at his Inventor, Vincent Price, in Tim Burton's fairy tale. Sexuality is tied to machines, as we see Nino fawn over the "bad-ass pussymobile," while real biological sex for him is impossible ("He couldn't find pussy in a whorehouse," Shannon says), hilariously displayed at a pizzeria after party as Nino seems to be having trouble amusing the beautiful girl standing next to him. Between the Driver and Irene, the most erotic moment is a very chaste one. As he drives, she joins her hand with his on the stick shift. Their love runs through the machine, which is the film, this remarkable product of light, sound, cameras, and technological ingenuity, such as we see on the film set where the Driver performs his rollover stunt.
The movies are all about surfaces. Bernie admits to the Driver that in the 1980s he was a movie producer. “They were action movies, you know, sexy. One reviewer called them ‘European.’ I thought they were shit.” (Ironically, and I believe with Refn’s prescience that expected the blowback, Drive is seen the same way by many audiences and reviewers, who think of the film as arty Eurotrash). Given the scorpion symbolism and the confusion of bad guys and good guys, it’s interesting that Bernie emerges as the Driver’s double, their two shadows eventually blending together during the film’s final violent confrontation. They transcend flesh, and are linked by film mythology. Bernie also has a fetishistic nature, if we notice the way he pays close attention to his knife collection (his private array of stingers), and how he sits all by his lonesome in his apartment, a self-aware violent man like the Driver. He is also, from a poetic standpoint, the Mephisto to the Driver’s fairy tale action hero fantasy, his handshake at the race track the Driver’s entryway into a new pulp narrative. We see him then refuse a handshake from Shannon, until the end, when he stabs Shannon, slicing the mechanic’s wrists open, but with an odd temperament of compassion. He is the Scorpion who does what he does because it’s in his character. He shushes the dying Shannon, “It’s okay, there’s no pain. It’s over.” It is different from the sadism we see in so many other movie villains. Bernie is nevertheless the cynical side of movie manufacturing, interesting in money more than mythologizing. His corpse is left with a bag of money. The Driver, representing the spiritual side of film, surges ahead, sparked by the sound and vision within his solitary deep self. The soul of cinema is loneliness.
When we take into account the attention Drive pays to our expectations of movie villains and heroes, the odd moment, for instance, when Drive approaches Nino’s Pizzeria in his bald stunt-mask, has nothing to do with a filmmaker’s posturing, but drives at our own wonderment of masks and their relationship to reality. The song on the soundtrack, Riz Ortolani’s “Oh My Love,” has lyrics talking about “nature’s miracle” once more “lighting the world” for men lost in black shadows. Films have much wonderment for nature, but poetically wax about our desire to rise above it, the spirit of Romanticism ascending beyond Naturalism. The Driver assumes a new character, uprooting himself from anything organic, easily playing the part of the superstar hero with his mask, which is the semblance of the movie star in the movie within the movie. He is the black time coming for the lapping up of Nino’s world, revenging his slain “father” Shannon, and finally making the final delivery, and the final sacrifice of his own self, to Bernie.
THE FAIRY TALE
The sacrifice is the Driver’s destiny, similar to Refn’s earlier protagonists, Charles Bronson and One Eye, who give themselves over for their own “creations." The Driver is the most selfless hero, being that his creation is in the guise of another person, Irene. Earlier on in the picture, as he drives her and Benicio home, he says to her, “Do you wanna see something?” That’s what the Driver wants to do, as so many filmmakers: they want to show us something, like Herzog’s invisible marvels of immanent madness, or the torments of Scorsese’s characters, beating their egos onto the bricks before them. The Driver shows Irene the imagistic nature of sound and vision, driving with the strains of pop music that inform us that he’s now a real human being and a real hero. She sees what he sees, and it perfectly fits into Refn’s fairy tale narrative, like Aladdin singing “A Whole New World” with Princess Jasmine, though given the Kenneth Anger undercurrent of the music’s juxtaposing irony to this doomed relationship's assumed reality, which may be closer in nature to Manhunter’s Francis Dollarhyde and Reba. The scene also invites comparison to Friedkin's fantastic To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), a glossy Los Angeles crime story with similar colors, textures, and flashes of hardcore violence (it also has a new wave pop score by Wang Chung, though unlike most of the synth work featured in Manhunter, the music for Friedkin's film hasn't aged as gracefully). To Live and Die in L.A.'s intense car chase sequences finds itself on the same abandoned stretch where the Driver cruises with Irene and Benicio. But through his psychological - and the film's aesthetic and technological - machinery, the similar setting assumes an opposite tone, a resonance more interesting when we consider the complex mysteries of the Driver's place as a fairy tale "good guy" who may have psychopathic tendencies, to Friedkin's characters, particularly the cop Chance (William Petersen), established as the film's "hero" and "good guy," but is probably also its most unlikable character. Or we may consider his antagonist, the charming, quiet, though dangerous counterfeiter Masters (Willem Dafoe), who is also an intense artist, ultimately burning in the factory of his creativity. Good guy and bad guy, creation and destruction, bliss and demise, meld together. We see the contrast to the "real hero" as the madness and insecurities of the Driver materialize when he drives Irene to work. She passes along the information that Standard is coming home. Because of how Drive is sold to its audience, as an action-hero film with Ryan Gosling as a leading man, much of the audience will not know why this moment unnerves them. But it’s transparent, as the sound evaporates, and the Driver's look acquires a blank, zombie-like affect (Shannon in fact compares him to a zombie), as if his film was falling apart. Gosling’s face is very frightening. His delusions become more transparent when he offers Irene the $1 million from Standard’s botched heist, adding that she could go away with it, “and I would be there for you…watching out for you,” playing the role of her hero.
Drive ends perfectly with its ambiguities. Is the Driver already dead? Is he just presently dying, behind the wheel on a lost highway? Was any of this even ever real to begin with? I don’t think it matters. To me, as an addicted filmgoer, I’m caught up in the shape of what Refn is showing me with his one eye, the camera, which moves up from the Driver’s bloody abdomen to his face, so blank and white. He holds it for an excruciating moment, and then the sweet singing slowly fades in, a distant memory made present and sculpting the chaos of time together in an organic if inexplicable unity. The Driver turns the ignition and the car goes forth, his fantasy as a lost object of affection played out as Irene is tearful back home, knocking on his door and passing by the painting of stormy water, where we know the scorpion will drown by virtue of his own character. Back on the road, we see the car’s gauges from the Driver’s POV as the signs on the road become blurry. The machinery still works, but the spirit is drifting. The image becomes black and the music coasts us away into the afterlife of end credits.
Drive is wound together on its own fascination with films and filmmaking. It is about subjective expression on the part of the creative personality or idiosyncrasy governing the world of the film, which could just as well be set in outer space as in a geographical city such as Los Angeles. It is caught up in its own power to assume how we too will respond to it. A telling interplay happens between the Driver and young Benicio at the garage, as the two have a staring contest. We see the Driver finally wince as he grinds away on a car, but he tells Benicio, “Made you blink.” “What?” Benicio responds. Obviously, the Driver blinked, not Benicio. But like Walt Whitman, what he assumes we all shall assume. It recalls an earlier image in Refn's work, from Bronson, where Charlie has his captive's eyes shut, while painting open eyes over the lids. The artist will make us see things his way. The Driver is the film, including all of its twists and turns, its characters, its romances, and unexplained mysteries. He stares right back at us, making us blink, and other times making us turn away in horror. But looking closely at it, it also visualizes the inner process of myth-making and our day-to-day interior yearnings to be more than what we are, and go someplace more than just right now. And we can get lost in those tangled cross streets of visions, and twists and turns of noir imaginings – or maybe project them outside the theater, onto a wider canvas of an omni vision window, transgressing the boundaries of the real. Drive exemplifies the sense of John Milton's verses from Paradise Lost, interesting when we consider how the poet was blind, and assuming the voice of Christendom's most notorious villain, Satan, whom the text perversely makes a hero: "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n."