“There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own. Do you understand?”
As far as crime movies go, Drive (2011) is a terrific neo-noir thriller. Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, and Ron Perlman to name a few, the film was an absolute delight. The first thing I noticed was the lack of dialogue; Drive is intersected by periods of silence, varying in length and intensity. Some of these periods of quiet are unsettling, some beautiful, some tragic, but it’s in these moments that the story is told. The soundtrack can be easily divided into two categories: first, the primal throb of powerful engines and second, a handful of vintage songs. Both were perfectly suited to the film (I bet that most people googled the soundtrack while walking out of the theater, it’s that striking).
The second thing that struck me was the subtlety of Ryan Gosling’s take on his character (who is never given a name other than “Driver”). He and Carey Mulligan did a superb job relaying emotion through the smallest means possible. Nothing was “over-acted” and each of their characters appear completely genuine. I felt that the apparent lack of effort made them more believable, and ultimately relateable.
I’ll attempt to relay the plot in as few sentences as possible, I know that lengthy synopsis can become tiresome: The Driver is a auto mechanic by day, an infrequent stuntman, and a wheelman in the criminal underworld. He develops feelings for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who is raising a son on her own because her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in jail. Their romance is cut short by Standard’s premature release from the penitentiary. Irene doesn’t know that her man is in deep with the mafia, and when the Driver learns that she’s potentially in danger he volunteers to help Standard out. The lone wheelman bites off more than he can chew.
Here’s my homebrew noir definition rundown:
1) The Seedy Underworld
Hollywood. A pizzeria, a garage, a greasy motel, the back room of a strip-club, and miles of road weave a vivid neo-noir backdrop.
2) The Anti-Hero
The Driver doesn’t want to be a hero, but is, and that’s what we like about him. He’s quiet without the shyness, and when he’s angry he becomes a frightening potential we can identify within ourselves, and it scares the hell out of us.
3) The Femme Fatale
Irene is the clueless femme fatale. She’s unaware of the danger she’s in and the sacrifice that the Driver is making for her until nearly the end of the film. She’s truly a femme fatale because it’s because of her that the Driver is willing to place himself in the line of fire. Blanche (Christina Hendricks) is also a femme fatale thematically, for reasons that I won’t spoil here.
The misogyny in the film feels formulaic; Irene’s oblivious to her situation and simultaneously helpless, it’s a classic ‘damsel in distress’ formula- but it’s insulting to women because it type-casts them as victims. Additionally, one scene takes place in the back of a strip-club for no other reason than to objectify the women in the scene and characterize the villain who is lurking there. I only like this scene because it’s designed to be misogynistic, it makes us feel no remorse for the man who runs the club.
Redemption is a definite theme in the film. Standard craves redemption for his colored past and the Driver craves redemption for feeling the way he does about a married woman. Also, Irene and her son must be redeemed from the mob who wishes them harm, redemption that can only come through Standard and the Driver.
“A lot of guys mess around with married women, but you’re the only one I know who robs a joint just to pay back the husband. Crazy.”
Drive is permeated by the unfulfilled promise of eroticism. There are no sex scenes, and the only nudity occurs in the back room of the strip-club (which is simultaneously the most violent scene in the film, so…not sexy). The most erotic moment is when Irene and the Driver share a kiss in an elevator, moments before an act of horrifying violence. It’s a great moment, and honestly I was grateful that the film was so tame. Because we never see them consummate their love, we truly feel like outsiders– and this makes their relationship seem even more beautiful.
(GIF images from onscreenkisses.tumblr.com)
7) Loss of Innocence
Irene’s son, Benicio, undergoes the biggest loss of innocence when he sees his father brutally beaten by mob muscle. Before they leave, they give him a bullet and tell him to hang on to it because the next time they come back they’re going to use it. What a horrible thing to do to a little boy.
Shannon (Bryan Cranston) is the most emasculated character in the film. He acts as a surrogate father to the Driver, but he’s constantly being driven under the heel of the mafia. His broken pelvis and permanent limp are witness to a history as peppered with risk and heartbreak as the Driver’s future. Shannon’s a shell of a man.
The Driver doesn’t smoke. I felt that making sure the audience knew this was a conscious decision to break with the film noir genre while simultaneously paying homage to it. Shannon says to the Driver early in the film:
“You look like a zombie, kid. You getting any sleep? Can I offer you some benzedrine, dexedrine, caffeine, nicotine? Oh, you don’t smoke. That’s right. Better off.”
It’s as if Shannon knows that when you smoke, you’re doomed for a tragic noir ending. Guess it didn’t matter, right?
Drive (2011) is textbook neo-noir. Oddly enough, several times during the film, I felt it had a Memento (2000) vibe– I think I’m going to stage a little double feature at my place, any takers?
One word of caution: Drive is EXTREMELY violent at points. Some of the most brutal/bloody images I’ve ever seen. It’s not a film for the faint of heart.