September 19, 2011 [Drive]

As soon as Drive started, just the music and titles, I thought of Thief, of Michael Mann and the early '80s—and a little farther back to other cars-n-crooks movies, the good ones: The Driver, of course, and Vanishing Point and yes certainly Bullitt. But Drive adds a deeply, ah, "European" sense of pacing. American movies are about things happening—even if it's all conversations, as the film versions of plays often naturally are—The Little Foxes, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, even The Bad Seed; Hollywood movies are Classical in the Greek sense: action determines character. And once you put those characters in cars, they move faster and faster, doing more, running ahead of our expectations, sometimes even the camera.

But European movies—and what I guess we still call "foreign films" in general—are about states of being. The characters remain very still, almost waiting for the action to come to them. They respond, and often move—sometimes drastically, sometimes in joy or rage; but then the atmosphere itself moves—it's in many ways the main character—and the mood regains control over any impulses the characters might have.

U.S. movies act; foreign films react.

Drive marries the two with a deliberate slowing of everything to discover the proper state of being—and the slowest poke of all is Ryan Gosling, who can be pretty good at being quiet—but here he forces himself into immobility, into an unblinking control over himself. It's in its way one of the most controlled performances I've seen, like De Niro in The Deer Hunter returning from Vietnam and hiding in the motel room, still still still. 

And, like De Niro, the quiet of Gosling's Driver brings tension, then menace. I'm also thinking of James Caan in Thief—visually, at least, this movie's closest relative—and although Caan has never been able to contain himself—always Sonny storming out of the house—his movements in Thief are controlled and precise, like Driver's hand on the wheel, his eye movements, his feelings for his mom-married-to-a-con neighbor—all of it minimal and deliberate.

But we know this can't last: He drives cars fast and dangerously, either as a wheel man for robberies or a movie stunt driver. So when the henchman threatens the neighbor in an elevator, Driver stomps him to death like a Mad Max road warrior; all that's missing is the warpaint and punk hairdo. At that moment, this soft-neon-colored exercise in period evocation not only asserts its "American-ness" but forces its "European" mood to explain such an outburst.

The result is a kind of heroism, almost supernatural, as he drives away wounded from his last stand, the girl safe—now I'm thinking of Val Kilmer in David Mamet's Spartan—and here we go again, the American hero of few words—and so we drive past Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper and John Wayne—but Driver shuts down all the way, his precision is not an action but a reaction to a world that gets smaller the farther into it he looks, the more he drives.
I went to IMDb because for some reason I didn't recognize the director's name. And for godssake: Nicholas Winding Refn is originally from Denmark, and made Valhalla Rising. And so there's that marriage of Hollywood and Europe: a plot-as-thought in which the Old World comes to the New and melts into a fog or fine spray made of ice-crystals and blood. I can shut up now: Drive and Valhalla Rising simply need to stand next to each other and look us in the eye and it all becomes—well, if not clear, then certainly undeniably there.


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