As an American, eager to see new talent carve into the meaty flanks of the American Berserk, it certainly seems like Drive is the film that Refn has been working up to; it finally allows him to make a film directly against the black suitcase model. The story – which imports the chutes and ladders of money and violence from his Danish crime films – pits an un-named stunt driver against a high-level regional crime boss. Albert Brooks got a lot of good press for his portrayal of the latter – well deserved, I thought – and he is, in a way, a very Refn kind of villain. In one scene he dispatches horrific violence with the discordant bearing of a man who, having grown frustrated with a broken gadget, is reduced to banging it on the workbench. In another scene – much commented upon in the reviews – he murders Brian Cranston while simultaneously coaxing him through his death throes.
The rest of the time he is, well, Albert Brooks, a loveably uncalculated mix of bumbling and keen, mellowed by age and easy living. In other words, so much greater his potential for violence for having it repressed beneath a friendly veneer. Refn’s motif is given physical form when we see Brooks returning an old-fashioned shaving razor – with which he has filleted Cranston’s forearm – to a custom made Victorian style case (it holds, in fact, a small, glittery collection of heirloom blades). Power, for Refn, comes from the management and aestheticization of violent urges, containing outburst until necessary and then making sure they are as focused as possible. The visual metaphor of Brooks, gently returning his murder-weapon to a velvet case, is the penultimate expression of this. The ultimate expression of Refn’s vision, is Ryan Gosling, another semi-mute, quasi-autistic hero who – when the time comes – unleashes mind-blowing violence with an elegance that seems more naturalistic than balletic (some would certainly argue with this, and many reviewers pointed to the scene in which Gosling crushes the skull of a potential assassin as tasteless overkill, but if we think about the real world logistics of killing a human being with brute force, and consider that Gosling strikes his would-be assailant only about ten times – far less than most fight sequences, which usually escalate to blades and bullets – then you can start to see Refn’s point).
In Drive, Gosling invests his rage (although that is not quite the right word for it) in his car, which he uses to moonlight as a getaway driver. Everything about his night-job says containment: Gosling’s hands are strapped into leather driving gloves; he lingers in the moment of strapping himself into the car. Even the set-up, delivered with Refn’s confident street-level savoir-faire, has Gosling mandating a strict five-minute window, monitored with a beautiful wrist-watch (one of the film’s many deliberate 1980s anachronisms). Gosling dedicates himself to his car (i.e. the scene where he labors of a piece of the car’s hardware in his apartment) because it allows him a way to express himself. Like Bronson, Gosling cannot go batshit in a vacuum but – unlike Tom Hardy’s perfectly Foucaultian prisoner – Gosling’s identity does not depend on opposing system (e.g. a prison), he’s been able to construct a system of restraint and release all by himself.
The film’s plot – which involves a beautiful next-door neighbor (it’s Los Angeles, after all), her ex-con baby-daddy and adorable young son – involves Gosling with a heist-gone-wrong, leaving him with a… wait for it… a black suitcase full of money. The film then demonstrates a kind of splitting: everyone else in the film continues to operate in classic 1980’s movie mode (which it is revealed – in one of several meta-winks – Brooks used to produce), as baddies from higher and higher up the chain attempt to kill Gosling and retake the money. But Gosling himself doesn’t want the money. The first thing he does after discovering his role in the heist was part of a set-up is to call those involved and offer to give the money back. Gosling spends the rest of the film trying to unburden himself of the suitcase and killing people when they – misunderstanding his lack of financial desire for trickery – don’t cooperate. Gosling is, for all intents and purposes, in the same film but following a different narrative.
Again, like most Refn heroes, Gosling prefers to kill with his hands and feet. Only once does he use a gun – not climactically but in an early moment of panic – and at one point actually threatens to hammer a bullet into a gangster’s head with a ball-peen hammer. Gunplay is too vicarious for Refn’s heroes, what they need is contact with the world through bodily violence. Though Gosling makes copious moon-eyes at his neighbor, and is affectionate towards her son, his motives are ultimately non-sexual (or non-paternal). Like other great films about those outside of the normative systems of sex, gender and money, Gosling has cobbled a way to negotiate a truce between his inner and outer worlds. We get the sense that Gosling’s tremulous balance depends on his driving and, at the literal level, the movie slaps us with its rubber-chicken of a title: taken as some-sort of 1980s left-over, Gosling is ‘the driver’ and ‘drive’ is what he does. But it’s hard to ignore Refn’s very post-modern take of Freud. In Refn’s world, the hero’s life-force – his libido, if we can mutate rather than strictly apply that term – refuses to be channeled into anything as neatly comprehensible as sex, economics or power. At the film’s end, Gosling alludes to the parable of the scorpion and the frog – explaining the embroidered arachnid on Gosling’s jacket (which looks it came from the rival dojo in The Karate Kid) – as a way of telling Brooks that he has gone completely psycho on Ron Perlman. We can misread this as movie-hero posturing, but it makes more sense as Gosling’s honest self-evaluation: his violence isn’t – and doesn’t need to be – sanctified by the genre requirements of chivalry or revenge. Like Refn’s films themselves, the thing that drives him is what it is.
Refreshingly – for a movie that flirts so closely with the line between homage and imitation – there is no 80s-style romantic reunion at the end of the film; Refn does meet-cute surprisingly well but he has no taste for the classic comedy ending, nothing’s well and little ever actually ends in his work. And what about that suitcase full of money? After Gosling’s final attempt to return it, he leaves it, abandoned next to the corpse of Albert Brooks, in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant. Compare this to Fargo, where the snow-swallowed ransom money disappears with the tragic irony of a flesh-and-blood death. In Drive, the suitcase is left by the side of the road on the way to a rather different kind of American film.
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Benjamin Schachtman lives in Chinatown with his wife, his dog and thousands of books.