Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Good Shark

Spoilers are all over this post, so please don’t read if you haven’t seen the film and intend to.

John, I kind of set you up to be a bit negative by using the word masterpiece. Anyway, I’m glad you like it even if you don’t share my potentially excessive enthusiasm. I was thinking you would like it just because it works so well and does so much right. All of the creative choices involved are spot-on. From the look, the feel, the music, the acting, the violence, the silence–it was all redolent of wonderful creative insight and talented execution. To me, it is a masterpiece of sight, sound, heart, and thought. I walked out of the theater feeling a little dazed (but absolutely blissful) because I knew I had been hit over the head by one hell of a movie. I loved it from the first frame to the last. It just hit all the right notes with me and inspired me with so many great creative choices (the minimal dialogue, the impressionistic scene structure, the fluid camera work–all so well crafted).

I suppose most of that creative credit belongs to Refn. DRIVE was originally supposed to be a blockbuster for Hugh Jackman. Then Gosling came along and recruited Refn and the film became this wonderful and weird piece of inspiration and genre fetishism. Autuer is good word for Refn. BRONSON is another film that you sense without Refn could have gone in another (and weaker) direction entirely. But he elevated the material by putting is artistic stamp on it and made it unique and fascinating. If BRONSON was indicative of a serious filmmaking talent, then DRIVE only solidifies it in giant, bold, neon pink cursive lettering. Refn is one to watch for the future. Get to know the name. I can’t wait for his next film already.

Gosling also deserves serious credit. Not just for recruiting Refn, but also for his performance here. You’re right John, he does have a great face and knows how to use it. He usually keeps it tightly composed but every now and then he lets in some terrific smirk or savage intensity that just makes him effortlessly appealing and watchable. He communicates so much with his eyes that it’s fascinating to watch him and go through the processes with him (or try to at least). I also love the quiet moments in the film where he and Mulligan just stare at each other. They are sincerely endearing moments, but more importantly, they communicate everything we need to know about their relationship. Gosling and Mulligan have great chemistry and they ooze this sexual longing that is almost palpable between them. There is a great moment during Irene’s husband’s welcome home party when Gosling’s character walks out of his apartment and finds Irene sitting on the floor in the hallway. They stare at each other and you can see Irene’s chest heaving up and down from her breath while Gosling’s eyes flicker with delight. Right there, everything you need to know. Just terrific.

All man-crushes aside, I don’t care what anyone says; Gosling is a movie star and one of the best around. People have been throwing out Steve McQueen or a young De Niro, but I’ve been thinking he’s like a young Mickey Rourke. Just as cool and confident as you like and seriously bursting with talent. Gosling is pretty well-liked among film lovers (and has been for years), but there is still an overwhelming mainstream heartthrobiness attributed to him by women and a subsequent tough-guy disdain for him by men. I told a friend at school yesterday that I was going to see DRIVE and he said, “Oh the one with Ryan Gosling? The guy from the notebook? Are you crazy?” I told him that I thought Gosling was a great actor and asked him if he’d seen HALF NELSON, THE BELIEVER, LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, or BLUE VALENTINE and he’d never heard of any of them. It reminded me of being in high school when I would tell people that Dicaprio was the shit and guys would be like, “ewww, the kid from TITANIC?” or girls, “Oooh, the kid from TITANC!” Now, lots of people respect Dicaprio as an actor, and I think that needs to happen for Gosling soon. He’s just too talented to be written off as a simple heartthrob (but, hell, what does mainstream culture know about talent?).

All the other actors are terrific and well cast. They do the most with the screen time they are given. I love Cranston’s character’s final scene with Albert Brook’s character. It’s strangely moving. Also, Albert Brooks is a fucking monster in this, and it’s awesome. I love his final scene with Gosling as well, as we cut between the restaurant and the showdown. Beautiful work.

And the retro hipster/electro soundtrack! Soooo awesome. It perfectly matches the film's images and makes them pop and sizzle.

Now I really want to get to this because the issue of motivation you brought up John is an interesting one. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is another film I consider a masterpiece and it also features an nondescript man doing things for unknown reasons. But surely there are motivations for The Man With No Name beyond simply money or trying to do something good despite your violent nature. I always thought he was motivated more by the ability to perform and to perform very well more than anything else. When he arrives in San Miguel, he must have looked at that small town with its rival gangs and loads of money and thought, “Here’s my chance to be a fucking legend. Finally a stage for me to strut my stuff.”

And that brings me to our unnamed Driver in DRIVE. In the opening shot of the film (or one of the first few, I can’t remember already), Driver looks out over the L.A. skyline the way The Man with No Name must have looked at San Miguel. L.A. is a playground with all the kids looking at him or a stage with a big spotlight just waiting for him to come out and blow every one away with his talent. His ingeniously executed opening heist generates this sense of performance. It’s like Eastwood shooting down those four thugs and then demanding four coffins instead of three. It’s a showcase. A great performance. When Driver pulls into the Staples Center and walks off with his Clippers hat, he’s like an actor walking off stage with the audience left in stunned silence.

It’s no mistake that Driver works in the film industry as a stuntman. This is someone who has seen a lot of movies and has absorbed all that desire to perform like his heroes on screen. He probably saw A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and thought, “that’d be a cool persona to have.”

Now, when most of us watch movies and walk out wanting to be the characters, we never actually feel the need to act out those roles in real life. Maybe we imagine ourselves as a gangster or a detective, but we usually don’t decide to actually fuck someone up or solve a crime and rough up some dames. Unless we are psychotic. Like Driver. Then we might act out on our fantasies and desires. Like Dexter, Driver has got the violence inside him. But instead of having Harry Morgan there to channel that violence, he’s got action movies, Westerns, and superhero flicks. But he doesn’t just want to be an actor in a movie, living from one cut to the next. He wants it in real life and he wants it all the time because that’s how he feels real. The getaway driving is his way of living the performance he wants to give. Meeting Irene is his chance to love and protect someone like in all those movies he’s seen or fairy tales he’s heard of. Helping out Standard and then getting revenge is his chance to be Travis Bickle or a western anti-hero. He's more like Don Quixote than anything.

There’s a scene where Driver is attacked in a motel room, and just before one of the assailants
breaks though the window with a shotgun, Driver takes a pause and a deep breath. In that moment, it is as if he knows it’s his chance to shine and to perform just like he’s seen in all those action films. The elevator scene is a similar moment to shine and he takes full advantage of it with a kiss and a head stomping.

I could think of numerous other moments where I got the sense that Driver just wanted to live out his cinematic fantasies. Putting on the stuntman’s mask when going after Perlman’s character is another striking example of this.

So, I really do think the film plays with stereotypes and familiar tropes, but it rises above them by being, I guess, meta-conscious. We are living out Driver’s fantasy and it matches the film’s fantasy. The film itself loves all those movies and archetypes that Driver does and wants to perform them for us too. But like with Tarantino, the love seems genuine and uniquely its own, which elevates the material above simple homage or recreation.

I will finish by saying that the closing song with its expressionistic refrain telling of being a real human being and a real hero is used less to reinforce the change undergone by our protagonist throughout the film, but to reinforce to us how he sees himself. My argument is that Driver is an actor waiting for that spotlight to come down on him so he can come alive. He needs the damsel to save, the bad guys to fuck up, and the cars to drive in real life like an actor needs a stage or a camera. As the song rings out, Driver moves his hand from his bloody gut to the steering wheel, letting us know he needed both the sacrifice for Irene and a fast car just to be anything at all.

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