Sunday, February 26, 2012
MOVIES MADE ME #39: DRIVE
The hell with the Oscars. DRIVE was the best movie I saw this year. In fact, it’s the best new American movie I’ve seen since NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Why? It showcases all the strengths of filmmaking as a medium. Through artful and ruthlessly efficient decisions about characterization, sights and sounds, all old things are made new again.
(Advance notice: Spoilers ahead. If you haven't already seen the movie, do yourself a favor...)
DRIVE, like NO COUNTRY, is essentially a genre film - a horror-tinged elegiac western disguised as a romantic crime drama. As a story, it’s nothing new. The first scene establishes Ryan Gosling’s Man with No Name as a dangerous hero with a professional code. Anyone raised on genre movies knows that, if he sticks to his professional code, he’ll be okay. We also know (because we’ve seen a few Michael Mann movies, and the opening credit sequence practically screams at us to remember movies like THIEF and HEAT) that he won’t stick to his code. The self-centered minimalist (a clear case of arrested development) falls in love, and suddenly his world becomes richer and more complicated. Because I’ve been immersed in westerns lately, I saw similarities to the classic 1953 western SHANE.
“Even I could read the endurance in the lines of that dark figure and the quiet power in his effortless, unthinking adjustment to every movement of the tired horse.”
In SHANE, we are introduced to the main character through the eyes of a young boy -- named Bob in Jack Schaefer’s novel, Joey in the 1952 movie adaptation with Alan Ladd. “He rode easily,” Bob remembers, “relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in his easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, of a trap set.” The pre-credit sequence in DRIVE introduces us to the same type of character. Schaefer could just as easily be describing Driver: “all his movements were deft and sure,” he wore “a frown of fixed and habitual alertness,” with “eyes that were endlessly searching.” In short, he’s a professional so in tune with his job and his environment that he seems to operate completely on instinct and intuition. What Schaefer conveys through words, filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn conveys largely through sound design. (This New York Times article explains the techniques better than I can.)
On the surface, the filmmaking and the character are each as efficient as a Swiss watch. The brilliance of the filmmaking is that it’s constantly hinting at what lies beneath the surface. As the story progresses, the storyteller subtly peels away more and more layers. There’s a quick scene at the end of the credit sequence in which Driver returns home to a dark, mostly empty apartment. This tells us everything we need to know about his lifestyle. (Again, I’m reminded of HEAT... Do all career criminals prefer minimalist decor?) A few minutes later, he’s in an elevator with his attractive neighbor Irene. A quick glance is all it takes to convey his loneliness... and his resolve to keep life simple by remaining lonely. No dialogue necessary.
He breaks down, of course, or there would be no movie. There is another quick scene that encapsulates his budding relationship with Irene’s son Benicio. In the elevator, the boy stares up at him. Driver stares back. It seems at first like an awkward moment. Then the boy blinks and smiles, and we realize that they were having a staring contest. Again, no dialogue necessary. We understand that Driver has already entered Benicio’s world, and belongs there. Why? Bob/Joey explains: “His eyes were still and steady and you knew the man’s whole attention was concentrated on you even in the casual glance.” What more does a kid want from a father? “He was a man like father in whom a boy could believe in the simple knowing that what was beyond comprehension was still clean and solid and right.”
Only a few words are exchanged between Driver and Irene in the subsequent kitchen scene. They have two conversations. One real. One implied. It’s the same thing between Shane and Bob/Joey’s mother Marian (played by Jean Arthur in the film) in SHANE. Bob tells us that Shane “always regarded her with a tenderness in his eyes he had for no one else.” A short montage illustrates the same thing in DRIVE: With Irene and Benicio, Driver is 100% present. That’s a simple thing to say, but it’s rare in real life. How many of us are so intensely focused? How many of us listen without waiting to talk? How often do we stop to really observe? In another other movie, the silence in the kitchen scene would segueway directly into a hot and heavy sex scene. Not here. Expectant breathing is sexy enough. Bob observes that he and his mother are “more vibrant, more alive” around Shane, because Shane is always there, always in the moment. As the song goes, “A real human being...” And yet.
Marian says of Shane, “I like him... He’s so nice and polite and sort of gentle. Not like most men I’ve met out here. But there’s something about him. Something underneath the gentleness. Something dangerous.”
“You could fairly feel the fierce energy suddenly burning in him, pouring through him in the single coordinated drive.”
DRIVE keeps things simple. It gives us very little information about Driver’s past. (Bob observes, “His past was fenced as tightly as our pasture.”) We know he moves around a lot. We know he’s new to his apartment building. We know he’s only been at his current job for four or five years. Like Shane, he’s a drifter with very little to lose. That partially explains his willingness to risk all, but a man doesn’t risk his life on a regular basis without some deeper psychological reason.
I’ve been reading a biography about Audie Murphy, American’s most decorated WWII veteran. Murphy says: “People don’t realize that after you’ve come out of a war nothing much gives you a thrill.” Murphy was constantly getting into fights, and remained addicted to high-stakes gambling for most of his life. Actor Lance Henriksen says it another way: “I was in a bar once with this guy who was provoking everyone around him, including me. He pushed people to the point where they were ready to fight. Then he would get happy - because when everybody around him was operating at a certain adrenaline level, he felt normal... When he’s surrounded by chaos, he’s in his element.” That’s the backstory on Shane and Driver. It’s all we need to know.
In SHANE, the hero allies himself not only with Marian and Bob/Joey, but with their husband and father. There’s never any doubt that Marian is attracted to him, just as there’s never any doubt that Irene is attracted to Driver... her breathing pattern alone conveys her anticipation. But Shane’s personal code dictates that he won’t act on it. In DRIVE, Irene announces that her husband Standard is coming home from prison and Driver takes a step back to preserve the family. He doesn’t have to say a word about it. His actions show that he respects the sanctity of those familial bonds, and he resolves to protect them as a unit.
Standard is trying to do right by his family, just like Joe Starrett in SHANE. “I have a lot of making up to do,” he says upon his return home. He has to make up for lost time, and re-establish himself as a husband and father. The first thing he does is tell Driver (without saying a word) that Irene and Benicio are spoken for. In any other film, the exchange between these two men would escalate into violence, or at least the threat of violence. Here, it’s all subtext.
Shane and Joe Starrett have a similar exchange when they first meet, with Bob standing between them like a helpless referee. Bob remembers, “I stared in wonder as father and the stranger looked at each other a long moment, measuring each other in an unspoken fraternity of adult knowledge beyond my reach.” Boundaries are established. Intentions are conveyed. Then they can move forward. A few scenes later, Driver is sitting at the dinner table - the fourth member of a family of three. Standard refers to him as “my new friend.”
Standard never admires Driver the way that Joe Starrett comes to admire Shane. That admiration comes instead from the character of Shannon, Driver’s employer and his only friend, played by BREAKING BAD’s Bryan Cranston. Shannon is willing to gamble everything he has on Driver, because he's the closest thing Shannon has to a son. “You put this kid behind the wheel,” he tells a loan shark, “there’s nothing he can’t do.” Up to a point, Driver follows the lead of this slightly weasely father-figure. Perhaps that’s why everything goes wrong.
The pivotal scene in the film, and the note on which the story diverges from SHANE, involves a short conversation between Driver and Irene. Driver contemplates telling Irene that Standard is planning to pull off a jewelry store heist in order to repay a debt and protect her and Benicio. He decides, instead, to secretly help Standard. His motives are noble: He wants to protect Irene and Benicio, without destroying the bonds of their family. He wants to deliver for them the way he delivers for Shannon. For that, he’s willing to break his professional code -- the source of whatever inner peace he has in his life.
“Some men just plain have dynamite in them, and he’s one of them.”
The heist goes wrong, and soon Driver is holed up in a hotel room with a million dollars of stolen mob money. What happens next is as brutal, and as psychologically staggering, as the hotel scene in SCARFACE. Driver is transformed. (Or maybe, as in the case of SHANE, simply regressed?) The next scene, where he goes after the guy who set up the heist, is even more brutal. Up to a point, Driver’s actions seem cold and calculated. By the end of the scene, however, he is trembling. There are a few ways the viewer could interpret this. I’m inclined to remember the observations of Mr. Grafton in SHANE, just before the gunslinger erupts into uncontrollable violence. Grafton says of Shane, “He was afraid of himself.” The same is true of Driver, and we have to wonder if he has already gone past the point of no return. Can we, after seeing all of this, accept him as the loving husband and father? Is he still an ideal protector or is he just a ticking time bomb?
Joe Starrett says of Shane, “He’s a special brand we sometimes get out here in the grass country. I’ve come across a few. A bad one’s poison. A good one’s straight grain clear through.” Shane holds back from killing the henchman who threatened his new family - partly because Shane believes that, although the guy is working for an asshole, he “has the makings of a good man.” There’s no particular reason to assume that Cook (the henchman who helped orchestrate Standard’s murder) has the makings of a good man, but Driver holds back anyway... for the sake of self-preservation. He barely manages to keep himself from going over the edge. The next scene - the infamous “elevator stomp” scene - gives him another big push. Because Irene is there, in harm’s way, he can’t hold back this time. Over the edge he goes.
What makes it all the more tragic is that Driver knows the significance of this event before he acts. He kisses Irene because he realizes it's going to be his last chance. He’s about to become a different person, at least in her eyes. Less than sixty seconds later, everything has changed.
“He breathed deeply and his chest filled and he held it, held it long and achingly, and released it slowly and sighing. Suddenly you were impressed by the fact that he was quiet, that he was still. You saw how battered and bloody he was. In the moments before you saw only the splendor of movement, the flowing brute beauty of line and power in action. The man, you felt, was tireless and indestructible. Now that he was still and the fire in him had banked and subsided, you saw, and in the seeing remembered, that he had taken bitter punishment.” - Jack Schaefer, SHANE
The third act of the film is the true test of character. Shannon frames Driver’s moral dilemma simply: “What are you gonna do?” Fight or run? We can safely assume that Driver has always run in the past. That’s his nature. (“I drive.”) That’s his code. Solitude. Self-preservation. Joe Starrett says of Shane, “He’s fiddle-footed.” Bob/Joey disagrees, saying, “Shane wouldn’t run.”
Driver doesn’t run. He unmasks, becoming a killer as terrifying as Michael Myers or Anton Chigurh (in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). The difference is that Driver’s whirlwind of violence has a noble purpose. He’s protecting his family... and not just from the goons who killed Standard, but from himself. That’s what makes Driver a tragic western hero, like Shane or Audie Murphy. He knows his story can end only one way. He tells Irene, before he goes to war, that he won't be able to come back.
Shane: “A man is what he is, Bob, and there’s no breaking the mold. I tried that and I’ve lost. But I reckon it was in the cards from the moment I saw a freckled kid on a rail up the road there and a real man behind him, the kind that could back him for the chance another kid never had... There’s no going back from a killing, Bob. Right or wrong, the brand sticks and there’s no going back. It’s up to you now. Go home to your mother and father. Grow strong and straight and take care of them.”
Bob: “This was not our Shane. And yet it was. I remembered Ed Howells’ saying that this was the most dangerous man he had ever seen. I remembered in the same rush that father had said he was the safest man we ever had in our house. I realized that both were right and that this, this at last, was Shane.”
Marian: “He’s not gone. He’s here, in this place, in this place he gave us. He’s all around us and in us, and he always will be.”