January arrives, and as usual for me, its time to catch up on many of the films I missed from the previous year. While I plough through the more embarrassing omissions from my viewing list, I cant help reminiscing about one of the few movies I did manage to see: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.
It would be no surprise to anyone that the film resonated with me. I’m pretty certain there would be a passport sized picture of me dead centre in the marketing departments graphs and pie charts in fact. What was strange was the fact that Drive became my most anticipated release of the year because of the quiet but steady word-of-mouth that built from its preview showing at SDCC, not any of its pre-release publicity. With just an occasional mention on a podcast here and there many months before release, I was intrigued. While many complained about a trailer promising a traditional crime caper, what they got was a slow and thoughtfully paced drama that builds to an abrupt eruption of violence from a mostly mute protagonist – not the banter-filled gunshow of something like Fast Five.
Some loved the film for Gosling’s internalised performance and the admittedly heart burstingly delicate relationship he forms with Carey Mulligan. Others celebrate Refn’s continued ability to represent the concept of male anger and violence, explored in the directors earlier works like Bronson. Perhaps for some it was the near perfect editing, or the immaculately constructed Eighties synth score. All of which, are valid acclamations of the quality and unique nature of the film.
The element that stood out for me the most however and continues to make me look back on Drive so fondly, was the the secondary theme of self image, and how a person projects themselves can appear to be completely different to the people around them. AV Club’s Tasha Robinson mentioned while discussing Drive, that the films representation of the action hero was of particular importance. Usually a display of masculine competency, the action genres central heroes are infinitely capable despite the heightened nature of their journey. No matter what happens, the confidence and control they project stands true to themselves, their allies and foes alike.
The tense opening sequence of Drive follows this mode to the letter. A man of few words, the driver is calm and cool in fraught circumstances where normal men would be a quivering puddle of post-heist nerves. Drive however, is essentially two films witnessed from two perspectives. The opening sequence is the film that Gosling’s driver is living in his mind, where everything that follows is the reality that everybody but the protagonist sees. An overt example of this would be the “four minutes” monologue he repeats before every job. It sounds convincing enough to be uttered by any real action hero, but does it really inspire confidence when put forth by a man who is barely capable of choking out a syllable of conversation in the real world? It’s easy to imagine the character practicing the delivery in front of a mirror in a crappy motel room, reminding himself that this is the right thing to say, not the quick witted vernacular of a John McClane.
Robinson’s discussion also contrasted Gosling’s character to those portrayed by Jason Statham. Imagine your typical Statham movie. He is nothing more than a badass at every step, saying the right things, throwing the right punches, bagging the model-slash-actress in the process. Events expected by all, including the main character. Now imagine if the deliberate manner in which these events occurred were a complete accident instead, a collection of mis-happenings that somehow fell in the favour of the hero. Now imagine that instead of going fortuitously well, think of how bad the alternative ending to that film could be. Once the drivers hand is forced and the time to take action arrives, he is ill-prepared for what is about to happen unlike the Stathams of the world. At every turn, he is barely aware of what is happening let alone how to deal with it, lost in the chaos of the unexpected. What fascinated me about the character however was the fact that while the horror unfolds, in his mind he just might still see himself as the archetypal hero, a notion that is cemented for him in the films final scenes. He falls back on the only thing he knows, behaviours he may barley be conscious of until they spiral out from his enclosed and defensive self. While we forgive and accept regular action leads decisions wholeheartedly, the drivers actions appear as grotesque. Its not just the audience that sees the depiction of violence as extreme – Mulligan’s character is realistically unsettled and disgusted by witnessing the lengths that her supposed hero has gone to. Had he been the controlled and unquestionably expert lead we are used to, perhaps she wouldn’t have minded so much.
In the case of Drive, its genuinely tragic to watch but still feels like a fulfilling conclusion thanks to the overall quality of the storytelling and performances. As he drives away into the L.A. sunset, he might not have resolved confrontation in the way of his action movie contemporaries, but he becomes a real hero just as his self image would want, and despite not leading us through our fears with that same confidence and competency we might be accustomed to and need to recognise in order to justify the violence, we still cared enough to forgive him and allow him to complete a heroes journey. In his mind at least.