Though the man has been making films for more than fifteen years now, it was in 2011 that Nicolas Winding Refn truly arrived with Drive; a cool distillation of 1980s Hollywood action and thriller tropes remixed by a cultural outsider. Many have already pointed out how Drive pulls from works associated with that decade by Michael Mann, Paul Schrader, Walter Hill and Brian De Palma and, yes, there's absolutely something valid about those observations. But it's a bit of a stretch to describe the film as just an homage to films like Thief, Hardcore, The Driver and Dressed to Kill.
Refn may be pulling from identifiable sources here but he cuts those materials with a post-modern detachment that's truly unique in its assemblage; Ryan Gosling's nameless character (as well as most of the characters in the film) is less an individual than he is a representation of codified behaviors and attitudes in the type of films being cited here.
The significant difference between the characters in Drive and those in, say, the most recent flick from someone like McG is that Refn peels back any pretense that his characters are anything but signifiers...of impenetrable cool, violence; whatever.
Note the way in which Gosling's "The Driver" and Irene (Carey Mulligan) interact in the film. There's more repressed sizzle between these characters than in any other film I've seen since The Remains of the Day (okay, scratch that, since In the Mood for Love). And still, Irene is, akin to all the female characters in the cinema of Michael Mann, a barely fleshed-out, wafer-thin excuse for what constitutes a person. In Mann's films, the way he represents women is an insurmountable barrier to some viewers (count me among them), making his films difficult to fully enjoy.
But, in Drive, Gosling's protagonist is every bit as underdeveloped emotionally and in his back story as the woman to whom he is attracted, striking an odd balance of sorts that heightens the viewer's projections of desire for their coupling, delivering a vicarious thrill based in proximity and distance. This excitement springs from our understanding of how relationships like these in films like this are supposed to unfold; an expectation that Refn fully exploits while simultaneously denying the viewer a resolution to the tension that he orchestrates in the scenes between Gosling and Mulligan.
The result: an atmosphere of intensely-felt longing motivates almost every action in the film, from the crimes at the heart of the plot to the extreme acts of violence that have stuck with all who have seen it. Drive functions less as a proper thriller than as an immersive cinematic experience based in projection. Its success is located in the fact that, even when Refn's manipulations are made transparent, the film continues to vibrate with a curiously slippery energy that shocks every bit as much as it teases.
Drive will screen at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) on March 17th & 18th at 7pm. The film is part of the retrospective series, Driven: The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn.
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Pusher
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Fear X
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