Drive (2011)

(spoilers when I say so)

Drive is a movie that really got to me. It is one of the intense and most surprising movies I’ve seen in a while and also one of the best. I had high expectations for the movie after having read so many good things, but they really paid off. It’s the first movie I gave a 10 since Looper in August. Director Nicolas Winding Refn creates an atmosphere that is as intense as anything I’ve ever experienced in a movie. This special mood is mostly created through silence, music and brilliantly framed shots (the two of them in the hallway, separated by the editing, but united in negative space is extremely brilliant, see below). The use of unexpected and shocking violence adds to that in an unusual way. The movie captivates you so much that the violence really feels like a kick in the head. It makes the violence also more meaningful because it both has an effect on the viewer and real consequences for the characters. The acting is amazing throughout, especially Ryan Gosling carries the movie without saying much and with only the slightest facial expressions. The same goes for Carey Mulligan, but most of the actors defy character expectations with little gestures, especially Albert Brooks and Oscar Isaacs. Overall, a masterpiece of a movie that stays with you.

But, you ask, does it have anything to say? The director obviously had many things in mind when making the movie, ideas about fairytales and Hollywood myths and more, so there is enough to dig into. I’ll focus on one of those aspects, the fairytale aspects of the male hero and the female love interest. On the surface both play very stereotypical roles. Irene (Carey Mulligan, who I learn to appreciate more and more with every movie) is on her own, with her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) in jail, so along comes her white knight, the nameless Driver (Ryan Gosling). They fall in love and then the plot complicates the situation in an almost conventional way. Irene passively watches the Driver most of the time, while he takes everything in his hands, attempting to rescue her without really asking.

(spoilers from here)

The scene which changes everything for the characters also turns the movie on its head. If you until that point thought that this is a traditional love story, a fairytale as Winding Refn explains, you’ll have to rethink for the rest of the movie, I believe. The scene is the extraordinary elevator scene, which pairs an overstylized romantic moment that goes beyond fairytales (lights, slow motion, a kiss) with a moment of extreme violence. That the Driver attacks the bad guy is not so surprising, as we know that he is there to kill them, but once he doesn’t stop kicking the guy’s head in until it literally implodes, we suddenly get a glimpse into our hero’s psyche that we could not have anticipated. He might try to be a good person, but he also enjoys violence more than a good person should. Maybe “enjoys” is the wrong word, but he is good at it. He is simply a very violent man. It is a clever deceit for the audience because we rely on him so much as our protagonist and suddenly we have to deal with this brutality. He is not the only violent character in the movie, but from the other characters we expect that (even if Drive still is able to catch us by surprise).

Our shock is mirrored by Irene’s reaction, which, to my mind, saves the movie and elevates it to this higher level it exists on. Because she feels like we do, in love with this beautiful, fascinating and good person, but appalled by his violence. Or maybe not appalled, but she sees the danger of it and steps away from it. As the elevator doors closes, she closes the door on him, not because she doesn’t love him, but because she knows she can’t be with him. It’s her decision, no matter how passive she might have seemed up until that point. Everything else he does now, he does on his own, alone basically, and in some way for nothing. He does it to protect her, sure, but he also knows that this won’t win her back. Which then, in turn, makes him a hero after all, because protecting her goodness makes him a good person, I believe. There is a love between them, an impossible love between two good people, and besides the defiance of movie-watching expectations and gender roles (which I completely admire), the tragedy of this romance is what really got to me. How better to show tormented hearts than by externalizing those feelings with explicit violence? You don’t have to get any of this, but I love this movie very much for all its heartfelt derangement. If violence gets to my heart, a movie can really win me over.