If The Notebook made you fall in love with Ryan Gosling, you may not want to see Drive. That said, the one thing both of those movies have in common is the intensity of Gosling – intensely romantic in The Notebook, and an unstoppable force in Drive. As it turns out, Drive is not just an action movie – it is a self-aware reflection on, and deconstruction of, 80s action movies. It does for movies that starred people like Van Damme, Cruise, and Stallone what Watchmen did for superhero comics. Bold claim? Maybe. But I think you’ll believe me by the time I’m done.
The opening titles leave you with zero doubt about the tone of this movie – the hot pink, jagged typeface, the cold, pulsing synths, and the panning helicopter shot above a shiny, almost sterile Los Angeles all scream “This is what movies were like in the 1980s!!” And yet, this is not a movie set in the 80s; this is happening now. It is part of the project of Drive to ask “Can the elements of 80s action movies be evoked and used effectively today?” The answer is complicated. The deconstruction begins in the movie’s opening chase scene, preceding the titles, in which over-the-top car-jumps, explosions, and wrecks are replaced by great driving and smart decisions, and yet the excitement is better than most anything you’d see in a Roger Moore James Bond movie. So far, deconstruction well done.
By the way, Ryan Gosling’s character is never named and is only credited as “Driver” – so yes, he is the action hero archetype. First we see him as get-away driver; then as potentially lonely loner living in the same apartment as Carey Mulligan’s character Irene; then as stunt driver for the movie on which Bryan Cranston’s character Shannon, the broken father-figure, is the stunt coordinator. Shannon comes to former action-movie producer and his current mob patron Bernie, played by Albert Brooks, asking him to back Shannon’s idea of entering stock-car racing, with Gosling as the driver. We also meet Bernie’s partner Nino, played by Ron Perlman, the rougher half of the criminal duo. Gosling’s character decides to help when the criminal past of Irene’s ex-con husband Standard (yes that’s actually his name) comes back to threaten the family. This brings Gosling and the family into a tangled mess with Bernie and Nino’s world, and this is where Gosling’s intensity makes itself thunderously felt.
Now, to pause for a moment: look at that short summary I just provided. When I say that the brevity of Drive‘s script makes that paragraph look like an epic poem, I am only being somewhat humorous. The concision and economy of this script is absolutely incredible. I have rarely seen a movie do so much with so few words. This, of course, is possible due to both fantastic writing and fantastic acting. Without the unfaltering directness of both Gosling and Mulligan, the chemistry between Irene and the Driver would be non-existent given they barely say 5 words at a time to each other. There is a conversation between Irene’s son Benicio and the Driver concerning cartoon villains that is only a couple lines long – 2 or 3 per character – and yet it illumines the whole problem of just how to define what role Gosling’s character is actually portraying. Nearly the whole movie is like this. The few times when a character waxes on (and by that I mean strings more than a dozen words together) are mostly claimed by Bernie and Nino, and both Brooks and Perlman are fantastic to watch. I never thought I would be so scared of Albert Brooks, but he is a terrifying character by the end of the film. Perlman is one of my favorite character actors, and his portrayal of the 58 year old gangster who still acts like a teenager is wonderful. Also, I would have watched an entire movie just about Bryan Cranston’s character Shannon – Cranston delivers the tragedy of the role in a way that recalls Willy Loman.
So, as I said – the intensity jumps to eleven. And here’s where things become interesting. We find that the stricture of Gosling’s Driver, who has non-negotiable rules about his get-away driving, and his electric chemistry with Irene, are all part of a single intensity of character. This intensity also translates into brutal, concise, unflinching violence. There is a definite moment where, through a small but very shocking act of physical violence, the audience is made to realize that Gosling is not the dapper heart-throb action hero. After that point, none of the violence could be characterized as ‘small’. However, the graphic nature of the violence is precise and brief, just like the rest of the film; it neither dwells on the gore nor cuts away. In each case, we see the totality of the act, and then immediately are made to examine the state of Gosling’s character. As we find out later, when the Driver relates (or at least refers to) the story of the Scorpion and the Frog, this intensity and singularity of will is simply who he is. Gosling wears a racing jacket with a golden scorpion emblazoned on the back throughout the film. The jacket is mostly white, and by the end has some obvious but not obnoxious bloodstains on it. Clearly he is not the white knight. But the jacket clues you in to his true identity – he is the only archetypical personality capable of carrying off many of the extreme adventures of 80s action heroes.
To be able to fly a fighter jet with extreme will and confidence like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, you would have to be borderline psychotic in your devotion to flying and everything you do (Not that I’m claiming Tom Cruise is not psychotic). To take down a ring of Special Forces drug dealers with precision and extreme prejudice like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, you’d have to not just almost go crazy, but actually do so (Again, not that I’m saying Mel Gibson isn’t crazy – I’m beginning to think this movie might be a commentary on what 80s action movies did to their lead actors). The point is, there’s no room for a tender, caring protagonist who can also brutally take down the antagonist – there is only the single drive (hehe) to accomplish a goal. That might be winning the heart of the leading lady, or it might be taking out every single one of the criminals arrayed against you without a second thought. But the morality and consequences of those goals is secondary to their importance to the character. Basically, just as Watchmen looked at superheros and said “These are the personality types who would actually fight crime in masks,” Drive tells you “This is the person you were rooting for as he got the girl and rode off into the sunset 20 years ago.” It’s the same person who doesn’t even blink as he kicks in a man’s skull.
Now, two things that gave me pause about Drive. The first is minor: if criminals like Bernie and Nino are this old and have been heading a criminal group for this long, they would be fairly smart criminals. So then why oh why would they kill people themselves? They wouldn’t – they would pay lesser criminals to do it for them. This is just how crime works. Now, you can make an argument that some of these killings are done because of extenuating circumstances or because of the personal relationship to the victim, but the truth is that if these mobsters are not smart enough to assign the job to a lower-level man by now, then they simply would not have reached this age. This was even more frustrating because other elements of the criminal world were quite smartly and accurately portrayed. I just shrugged my shoulders and marveled yet again at finding myself truly afraid of Albert Brooks.
My second issue is a bit bigger. The soundtrack of this movie is great. The songs are great individually, and they are great for clearly defining the movie as a period commentary. All the songs not composed for the score are also from the last 5 years, and their apt use in a modern movie about 80’s movies provides a secondary commentary on the Reagan Revivalism that’s been going on in recent popular music. However, there is one song, College’s “A Real Hero,” which bugged me. The repeated lyrics are “You’re a real human being, / And a real hero.” This song is played while Gosling is on screen numerous times throughout the film. Ostensibly, the point is to question whether or not Gosling qualifies as a hero, and also to point out that 80’s movies glossed over the moral intricacies of their plots with simplistic song lyrics. Unfortunately, whether or not the Driver is a hero is a redundant question as that has already been accomplished elsewhere in the film, and highlighting the awful habits of 80s movies causes this one to switch gears for a moment. The film stops deconstructing the 80s action role and using the components to skillfully tell a new and still compelling story, and instead simply starts pointing to 80s movies and exclaiming “Wasn’t that ridiculous?” Yes, it was. That’s why it’s called the 80s.
Other than those two elements, however, this movie is, quite honestly, one of the better ones I’ve seen in a while. The question then becomes whether you will enjoy it. If you’re willing to accept the extreme violence as an integral part of the story and characterization, then yes. If you’re willing to embrace an examination of 80s cinema, then yes, you’ll most likely enjoy this film quite a bit. If you’re not interested in all that stuff, and you’re just looking for a highly entertaining action movie, you can get that, too. But I can assure you, if that’s all you’re looking to get out of this movie, you are robbing yourself of a really great piece of film.