Drive – 2011 – dir. Nicholas Winding Refn

Driver is a quiet, sometimes menacing, often violent, but ultimately gold-hearted stunt-and-getaway-driver, and we don’t know much else about him in Nicholas Winding Refn’s beautiful 2011 film Drive. But, in James Sallis’ “Drive,” the 2005 novel on which Hossein Amini based his screenplay for Mr. Refn’s film, we are given the shorthand of his genesis, and more depth into the carnage he consistently leaves in his wake.

Unlike Mr. Amini’s character (played with Moai-like reserve by a measured Ryan Gosling), who turns to violence only as a fail-safe attempt to stop deathly harm from coming to those close to him, Mr. Sallis’ Driver is baptized (or at least confirmed) in blood and has been battling with his violent nature his whole life. The highlights of his virulent upbringing are definitely his parents: he is the victim of his father first, who starts taking advantage of him at 12 by utilizing his size for burglaries. However it is his mother that has the truly scarring turn, when she, at having apparently had enough of the father, murders him in front of Driver:

“One night at the dinner table she went after his old man with butcher and bread knives, one in each fist like a ninja in a red-checkered apron. She had one ear off and a wide red mouth drawn into his throat before he could set his coffee cup down.”

This comes fairly early in the novel, and is in our minds later when Driver turns to his own frequent violence. At one turn there is a group of kids near his car and he acts with almost no provocation:

“Stepping directly forward, he punched the first alpha dog’s windpipe, feeling the key tear through layers of flesh, looking down as he lay gasping for air.”

In another scene he strangles a man with wire and we get the interior thoughts of the victim:

“He claws at it, knowing it’ll do no good. Someone behind pulling hard. And that warmth on his chest would be blood. As he struggles to look down, an ingot of bloody flesh, his flesh, drops onto his chest.”

Whether to avoid alienating the audience or to streamline the story, Mr. Amini strips Driver’s more erratic violent acts (and a whole lot of drinking in bars, which in my opinion may have added some humanization to Gosling’s take), and only hints at a violent past. The result is a purer Driver who is a better stand-in for the everyman. Without all that ingrained violence from his past there is enough vacancy in the character for Mr. Gosling to steep him in tics and affectations as aplenty, albeit less neurotic, as those he injected into his character in Lars and the Real Girl. He doesn’t reach out to shake hands until he takes of his gloves, he doesn’t laugh, he has impeccable posture, he always opens the door during a robbery, and we don’t know where he learned any of it.

Where, in the novel, Driver’s aesthetic and physicality are barely hinted at, in the film Driver is visual pay dirt for an audience; even those of us who aren’t swooning over Mr. Gosling’s looks. In addition to his workman’s wardrobe of denim and Henley shirts, there is his scorpion-emblazoned satin jacket (coveted by audiences so much that they are now for sale), and his knuckle-less leather driving gloves. He is so stylized that he takes on a cartoonish appearance that is highly suited to the Glam rock ambiance that Mr. Refn creates out of Los Angeles for the film.

And the best part of that stylization is his the toothpick he keeps perched on his lips, which at first recalls Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger or even Razor Ramon, but becomes something quieter and more signifying. Mr. Gosling is a smooth actor and he keeps his mouth perfectly still and resists the urge to chew on it or take it out at any unnecessary moments, and the toothpick’s stability unconsciously mirrors Driver’s calm for us.

Mr. Amini also streamlines the narrative to remove many scenes and some major characters (for example, the doctor we see patching up Driver in one scene in the film is given a few chapters of his own as “Doc,” an alcoholic doctor who becomes one of Driver’s replacement father figures) and does make a very cohesive story out of what reads like a pastiche of episodes in the novel. But the changes sometimes seem pandering too: in the book, Standard’s wife Irena (anglicized to Irene for the wonderful Carrie Mulligan in the film) gets her head blown off by a gang member well after Standard’s death. And then her son Benicio gets shipped to a group home, and after a short stint of letter writing between Driver and him, disappears. And choices like this aren’t necessarily horrible either, just pandering. Would as many of us have enjoyed a film where an innocent girl with the love-stricken face of Ms. Mulligan unexpectedly gets her head blown away? No, we only want to see that happen to thugs, goons, and the occasional she-devil.

Mr. Refn is coming off of two very sharp movies that are also based around violent leading characters—the blood-soaked and grainy Viking tale Valhalla Rising (2009) and Bronson, a manic biopic about one of Britain’s most notorious prison inmates starring an out-of-control Tom Hardy (2008)—and his directing here is crisp and filled with precision. The film is shot in a Los Angeles that ends up looking more like Gotham City: Mr. Refn doesn’t bother bathing his scenes in extra lighting, but rather depends on the streetlights and neon signage that work like LA nightlights. From the first scene, he adds seriousness and authenticity to the scenes by not worrying about whether the audience can see exactly what is happening.

The images that stayed with me most after my first viewing were not so much the blood-splattered faces or the exploding heads (which are all top-notch) or that amazing elevator kiss, but the scenes where the steady camera is mounted in the car and we are allowed to just watch the dashboard instrument panel bob along the road or watch Mr. Gosling drive with such focus that he appears frozen.

So, throw Mr. Refn’s beautiful camera, Mr. Gosling’s acting abilities, and Mr. Amini’s hollywoodized script into a pot. Add stellar performances by Ron Perelman (as toothy as ever), Albert Brooks (playing against type and right into the critic’s hearts), and Bryan Cranston (Walter White with a limp). Add Christina Hendricks to taste. Spice it up with an electropop soundtrack as synthesized as 808s & Heartbreak, and you’ve got a stew going.

Andrea O Written by: