Wheel men don’t eat quiche: Drive ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  September 24, 2011)

Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.

-Tsunetomo Yamamoto, from the Hagakure

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that a man…a real man…has gotta adhere to a Code. Preferably a “warrior” code of some sort. Not that I claim to lead any kind of Samurai-inspired lifestyle; if someone were to ask me what code I live by, my reflexive answer would likely be “206”. It used to be “907” when I lived in Alaska. Did you know that the biggest state in the union only has one area code? So technically, all Alaskans live by the same code. But I digress.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, “code”. Steve McQueen…there was a guy who specialized in playing characters who lived by a code; he also brought a sense of Zen cool to the screen. There were others, like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood (before he began co-starring with orangutans). But McQueen (pardon the vernacular) was “the shit”.

Now, when one thinks of film directors whose canons abound with such characters, Jean-Pierre Melville springs to mind. Insular and taciturn, the typical Melville protagonist may be a criminal, but he is a decidedly disciplined and principled one. In Melville’s universe, honor among thieves is not an oxymoron.

One prime example is Jef the hit man, a cool customer played with steely detachment by Alain Delon, in Melville’s 1967 film, Le Samourai. Although it is  relatively static  by today’s “action thriller” standards, it has influenced a number of  film makers (John Woo and Quentin Tarantino have worshiped at its altar).

A direct descendant is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), a spare and hard-boiled neo-noir about a professional getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal) who plays cat-and-mouse with an obsessed cop out to nail him (Bruce Dern) and a dissatisfied customer who is now out to kill him. “Spare” would also be a good word to describe O’Neal’s character (billed in the credits simply as: The Driver), who utters but 350 words of dialog in the entire film.

And now, in 2011, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (channeling Melville by way of Hill’s aforementioned film) and leading man Ryan Gosling (channeling Delon’s character by way of McQueen) have teamed up on a noirish action thriller called Drive.

Gosling (“Driver”) is a Hollywood stuntman by day, wheelman-for-hire by night. Not unlike O’Neal’s Driver, he is a bit picky regarding who he will work with, and has a Set of Rules that must be strictly adhered to. “I give you a five-minute window,” he tells his clients, “anything happens in those five minutes and I’m yours, no matter what.” Outside of that time window, the customer is forewarned that he is on his own. “I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. I drive.” As for those who are tardy? There’s no ride home. Get in, get out, or you’re left holding the bag.

Yes, he’s very strict. But it’s a display of good business acumen; particularly in a “business” where a slight misstep can cost you years of your life, rotting in a prison cell. So far, by sticking with his “code” of professional discipline, Driver has managed to keep his moonlighting gig off the radar and maintain his double life with relative ease. However, the Fickle Finger of Fate is about to dip into both his personal and professional life.

On the professional side, his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a retired stuntman and mechanic who throws Driver a little work on the side at his auto repair shop, has approached a shady acquaintance, an ex-film producer turned loan shark (Albert Brooks) and his mobster partner (Ron Perlman) to invest in a customized race car. Shannon envisions Driver, with his formidable skills, as a potential money-making champ on the track. Not a bad idea, but these are not the kind of guys who are likely to just write off a bad investment. These are not nice men, period.

On the personal side, Driver is developing a strong attraction to a pretty neighbor (Carey Mulligan), a prison widow with a young son. The feeling is mutual, but news arrives that hubby (Oscar Isaac) has earned an early release. While he is disappointed, Driver still continues to be a good neighbor and spend quality time with her son (you know, the code). When the safety of mother and son is threatened by her husband’s prison “creditors” after his release, Driver warily offers to help him pull off a debt-settling job.

What his film may lack in original plot ideas (Hossein Amin adapted the screenplay from a book by James Sallis) is amply compensated by Refn’s stylish execution and his leading man’s charismatic performance. Paradoxically (in true McQueen fashion) it is technically more of a non-performance; Gosling is not quite all there, yet he remains wholly present. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the film is Albert Brooks, whose quietly menacing turn as a mean, spiteful, razor-toting viper goes against type.

This is the most atmospheric L.A. noir since Michael Mann’s Collateral (which now that I think about it, is another film that has direct lineage back to Le Samourai). In purely cinematic terms, I think Refn proves himself to be on a par with modern noir masters like Mann, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan. He was smart to enlist cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who is no stranger to the genre (The Usual Suspects, Blood and Wine, Apt Pupil, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). The action sequences are slickly done and quite exciting (although it turns out Gosling didn’t go 100% “McQueen” on us; stunt driver Jeremy Fry is his double).

The pulsing synth-pop score (by Cliff Martinez) is very retro-80s (the Fairlight lives!). A caveat: while this film is artfully made, it does contain several shocking scenes of brutal violence,  potentially off-putting for the squeamish. That being said, if you fancy yourself a connoisseur of fine noirs and pure cinema, I would recommend that you plunge recklessly into this film. And do not think about victory or defeat. By doing this…you could awaken from your dreams.

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