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American Independents

Drive (US 2011)

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan meet in the lift in their apartment building.

I didn’t know too much about Drive when I sat down to watch it. I remembered vaguely that the film had done well at Cannes (it won the Director’s prize for the Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn). We covered his 2010 bloody historical film Valhalla Rising, so I should have been prepared for the severity of the violence in Drive – but I wasn’t. My usual response to excessive violence is just to shut my eyes. I try not to be too moralistic about it and I endorse depictions of violence towards some form of socially useful purpose, but in this film the actions of the central character just seem excessive. In one particular scene he kisses Carey Mulligan in a tender and sensitive way and then turns and kicks a man to death. Yes, it was self-defence, but the brutality wasn’t justified. (Reading various responses this is clearly a key scene for many in the audience who discuss why ‘the driver’ Gosling) did it and what he expected the response to be from Irene (Mulligan).

I think that I am reacting here to the avalanche of praise for the film and in particular the repeated cry that this film is ‘So Cool!’. It is extremely well-directed, brilliantly paced, beautifully designed and well-acted and it conjures up numerous noirish crime films from 70 years of Hollywood. The script by Iranian-Brit Hossein Amini, based on a novel by James Sallis is tightly constructed. This is what is fascinating. The ‘cool’ tag is partly applied because the film title most frequently cited by reviewers is Bullit with Steve McQueen. The link is a central character who is mostly silent, wearing his shades and driving gloves and driving with great skill and control through the streets of LA and its environs. McQueen traded on his looks, his lack of expression and occasional facial tics and his demeanour. He was a great star. Ryan Gosling looks and acts the part and is a coming if not ‘arrived’ star. But there the direct link to Bullit‘s narrative ends, I think.

Drive offers us Gosling as an unnamed central character, who works as a skilled mechanic and moonlights as both a Hollywood stunt driver and a getaway driver for local hoods. He has no background, no ties and in his criminal activity he is strictly disciplined. His boss at the garage hopes to make him a stock car driver but this involves getting into bed with a local gangster. The ‘the driver’ meets ‘the girl’ – with a young son and a husband in prison. That’s all you need to know. As usual, Philip French makes all the appropriate film connections and he has unearthed a producer who links two ‘European’ directors taking a different look at LA crime – Peter Yates in Bullit, John Boorman in Point Blank plus the Americans Walter Hill (The Driver), Michael Mann (various titles!) and William Friedkin (To Live and Die in LA) making films influenced by European Cinema. I’d add a further title directed by a Frenchman in the 1970s, I think, but I can’t track it down.

Personally, I think that the narrative match is with The Driver. This has Ryan O’Neal as a similarly unnamed ‘Driver’ – although here he is pursued by a cop (played by Bruce Dern). French suggests that The Driver was influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville and certainly I remember thinking that the central character was a form of existentialist hero. The Gosling character seems more like a kind of avenging angel. One comment I read suggested Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ noting the toothpick the driver chews much as Eastwood chewed cheroots. This would be the Eastwood of High Plains Drifter. But this doesn’t really explain how a highly-skilled ‘driver’ transmutes into a brutal avenger (i.e. beyond just saving himself).

In The Driver, the female lead is Isabelle Adjani, in Bullit it’s Jacqueline Bisset. Here, it is another European, Carey Mulligan. I know she has been in Hollywood movies before, but to me she is about as American as Typhoo teabags. She’s very good of course and her Englishness means she can be both ‘ordinary’ and ‘mysterious’ at the same time.

The obvious point is that Drive is not a car chase movie – even if there are a cuople of well-planned chases. It’s a classy thriller which made me think of two other crime films with car/driving connections – Don Siegel’s The Killers (with John Cassavetes as a racing driver) and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. To compare Drive to these two films sounds like high praise I think, but I don’t like the idea of it being ‘cool’.

An interesting take on the US release of Drive and its box office performance (below some predictions) here.

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