79: Drive (LAFF 2011)

dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, wri. Hossein Amini, USA, 2011, 95 mins

The Stateside debut of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive (adapted by Hossein Amini from the James Sallis novel) is obsessed with the directionality of time. In a city like Los Angeles that’s built more for automobiles than for people, a slick driver with a fast car is an aspirational avatar that provides the promise of freedom, of escape from the shackles of a stationary past. But that promise is an illusory high-speed mirage, one that Refn dissects amidst a flurry of car chases and brutal acts of violence. Like a samurai film, Drive proceeds for long stretches of reflective calm before exploding with pent-up, embattled fury, its bloody and passionate moments crystallized and suspended in time. And like a samurai film (or a medieval Norse saga, or the films noir that are this movie’s forebears), there is no force fast enough to elude the binds of past sins and inevitable vengeance.

The anonymous Driver played by Ryan Gosling tries to master time; he works as a stunt driver for the movies, where a split second is the difference between getting the shot and getting sent to the hospital. He’s also being groomed by his conniving garage-owner boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) for the racing circuit. On top of all that, he’s a getaway driver for any criminal that can pay his fee and abide by his razor-precise timetable.

Of course, that mastery is challenged when a woman comes into the picture: Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young waitress who lives down the hall from the Driver. He quickly forms a rapport with her and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), new connections in his life — but those connections have connections of their own. Viewed through Refn’s lens, Los Angeles is a small city, and an act of violence compels the Driver to perform a good deed (however tarnished it might be) that only plunges him deeper into an inextricable web of treachery and brutality where neither his ironclad rules nor his wheelman skills seem like enough to save him.

The entire film is tainted with a sense of inevitability, where the characters all seem fated to die, and their struggle is merely to reach their appointed hour rather than meet their end as a random casualty, faceless and forgotten. So many of them, from Shannon to Irene to Albert Brooks’s dagger-smiling crime boss Bernie, tell stories of how they met one of the other characters, an ironic recognition of beginnings even as we can see the approaching ends. Those ends are captured in an aestheticized brutality in the mold of Hong Kong-style heroic bloodshed — but leeched of as much heroism as possible, edging towards the the revulsion of the abbatoir.

Throughout, Gosling glides through the film as a paragon of that bloodshed, capable of terrible violence but staying curiously detached, evoking those demons through the subtlety of a single line or gesture. It’s not that he’s sleepwalking through the story (though Cliff Martinez’s ethereal score has the effect of transforming Los Angeles into a hellbent dreamscape), but there’s the eerie sense that the world has no place for him unless he makes one. Refn helps find that place through his use of slow motion, which accentuates certain moments and lets the rest of the world fall away.

And yet we must return to normal speed and to the ticking clock, where the Driver and all those connected to him have to live with irrevocable consequences. Much is made of the inevitability of human nature; witness the scorpion imagery associated with Gosling’s character, as if to announce to everyone that they should have expected what lies within. And the telling moment is a quiet one, as he watches television with Benicio and asks the kid how he knows the shark character they’re watching isn’t the hero. He receives a reply with just the right note of condescension: “Does he look like a good guy to you?”