Thursday, August 6, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Drive (2011)

Even when he was part of the Mickey Mouse Club, he wouldn't eat his Mickey Mouse Magic Crunch.

Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

Getaway drivers are like the bass players of heist-movie crews: nobody gives two shits about them. Adapted from the 2005 James Sallis novel of the same name by screenwriter Hossein Amini, director Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a heist flick that takes a different turn and gives getaway drivers their due by telling everything from the point of view of the wheelman. The film's two heist sequences literally leave out all the lock-picking bits and all the breaking-into-the-vault bits, and as a bit of a sly joke that's reminiscent of Andy Kaufman standing around on stage and waiting for his cue to lip-sync the "Here I come to save the day!" part of the Mighty Mouse theme, the heist sequences just show Ryan Gosling waiting in the car and considering his next move in case the heist goes wrong. Refn is so skilled at building tension in Drive that these sequences are still gripping even without ever setting foot inside the electronics warehouse that's broken into or the pawn shop that gets held up.

Drive is also Gosling and Refn's twisted version of a superhero movie (regarding the subject of superhero movies, Gosling joked, "All the good ones were taken, so I made up my own"). It's done not like a quippy Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster or a shouty Zack Snyder speed-ramp fest but in the nearly silent, actions-speak-louder-than-words style of older action flicks Refn and the Drive producers (and I) love, whether it's Michael Mann's Thief, Peter Yates' Bullitt, John Boorman's Point Blank or Walter Hill's The Driver (Hill's movie is the only one I haven't seen out of those four older actioners).

The superhero Gosling plays is a garage mechanic and Hollywood stunt driver who's never referred to by name in the movie, not even by Shannon (Bryan Cranston, who guest-starred in a standout 1998 X-Files episode that's also called "Drive"), his boss at the garage and father figure. The Gosling character is listed in the end credits as simply "Driver," a shout-out to the way Hill's movie identifies Ryan O'Neal's character as just "The Driver." The mechanic's superpower is his badass stunt driving skills, which he puts to use at night in his side gig as a getaway wheelman. In case we miss Refn's interpretation of Driver (no relation to Adam or Minnie?) as a superhero, the scorpion emblem on the back of Driver's white satin jacket is designed to look like Spider-Man's, and the theme music for the love story between Driver and his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) is "A Real Hero" by the Toronto duo Electric Youth and French producer/remixer College.

There's one other superpower I almost forgot: Driver's prowess with a hammer or knife (or a gun, even though like O'Neal, he prefers not to carry one) whenever either his life is threatened--both Driver and Shannon frequently get into business with dangerous people--or the lives of Shannon, Irene and her six-year-old son Benicio (Kaden Leos) are threatened. You don't want to be on the other end of a fight with Driver whenever he's wielding a hammer or knife. And that's where the twisted part of this Refn take on a superhero movie comes in: Driver also happens to be a sociopath who's capable of terrifying, childlike and almost-got-slapped-with-an-NC-17-rating violence when you least expect it. Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who regularly handles the cinematography for Bryan Singer's directorial efforts (like the bizarrely orange-hued pilot episode Singer directed for House), both shoot Driver's nighttime retribution against an L.A. crime boss named Nino (Ron Perlman) like a horror movie sequence, right down to the creepy, Michael Myers-style stuntman mask Driver chooses to don for his pursuit of Nino.

Amini and Refn also upend one other aspect of superhero movies: the romance (SPOILER). Many of them end with the superhero (unless he's a bizarre monkish type like the Tobey Maguire version of Peter Parker, who doesn't have time for sex even though Kirsten Dunst, Mageina Tovah, Elizabeth Banks and Bryce Dallas Howard all throw themselves at him) getting the girl, while Drive ends with Driver forcing himself to leave behind Irene and Benicio because it's the only way he can protect them from any remaining associates or underlings of Jewish gangster Bernie Rose (a cast-against-type and convincingly intimidating Albert Brooks). Driver's chaste romance with Irene--who's still on good terms with her husband and Benicio's father, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), an ex-con who happens to be returning home from prison right when Driver's starting to bond with Irene--is more interestingly played and more maturely handled than most romances in actual superhero movies. That's because it's depicted with minimal dialogue and expressed mainly through glances between Gosling and Mulligan.

"He sees her in a grocery store. Cut to the parking lot... Cut to them in the elevator. He's helping her carry her bags upstairs. Cut to them in her apartment. She's giving him some water, and an entire movie is happening between them, and we don't need to hear the fuckin' dialogue! It's all in their looks, it's all in the shots. It's just absolutely beautiful," said A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson during his Trailers from Hell discussion of Drive and its refreshing lack of unnecessary exposition.

The idea to discard most of the dialogue that was written for their scenes together came from both Gosling and Mulligan. It was a bold and terrific choice. Moviegoers who either giggled over Driver's laconicism (I'd hate to see them watch Steve McQueen in Bullitt because they'll probably end up fracturing a rib) as if they were watching that old and bizarre clip of Gosling singing some Jodeci on The Mickey Mouse Club or complained that "Gosling doesn't talk enough in this movie!" clearly want everything spoon-fed to them (Drive received a C- from moviegoers at CinemaScore in 2011). I know I keep quoting my favorite line from Road House, but it's very apt here: they're too stupid to have a good time.

Driver is so terse and so uninterested in talking about his past that the only line of dialogue about his past comes from Shannon when he recalls to Irene the day Driver came to his garage looking for work (whereas by the end of that great diner scene between James Caan and Tuesday Weld in Thief--which is full of exposition, but it's delivered naturally and realistically and in the manner of a typical diner conversation--we know every little bit of the Caan character's incarcerated past and what makes him tick). Both Driver's terseness and the lack of information about his past before the garage have caused Drive and its enigmatic main character to be open to interpretation, which is part of what makes this movie continue to be fascinating. Moviegoers like Olson believe Driver is somewhere on the autism spectrum, while an actual psychologist who preferred to remain anonymous and was asked by a movie blog in 2011 to profile Driver's behavior concluded that he's more like someone with obsessive compulsive personality disorder (which isn't the same as OCD) than an autistic savant. That psych profile also theorized that Driver was raised on a farm (!).

My interpretation of Driver is that he did time when he was younger, and Shannon took him in right after he got out of prison (I don't view him as someone who grew up on a farm). It's a backstory Gosling tells primarily through his eyes and body language, just like what Charlize Theron does with her character Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. For instance, look at how Driver silently reacts to the presence of Standard, whose past decision-making hasn't exactly been the best and whose sizing-up of Driver when he first encounters him in their apartment building's hallway is fraught with unspoken hostility towards "Mom's new friend." Driver gives a look in that hallway scene (and in a later scene where Standard tells him he's into the mob for some money) that says, "Bad decision-makers like Standard were all over the yard."

Friendly Neighborhood Driver-Man

I contemplated Olson's reading of Drive as a story about an autistic wheelman and thought it made some sense for a few weeks. But then after rewatching Drive in its entirety, I realized his reading doesn't quite fit, despite Driver's savant-style memorization of the streets and freeways of L.A. for his gig as a wheelman. I don't think Driver's on the spectrum. He's simply a criminal who, like Neil McCauley from Heat, taught himself not to waste his words and to keep himself as quiet and invisible as possible to avoid attracting the attention of either the prison guards, the cops or his enemies.

Even though Driver often looks like he'd rather be behind the wheel of a muscle car or under some vehicle's hood than face-to-face with any of the hotheaded crooks who enlist his services, he's able to maintain eye contact with people whose company he likes, and he can read social cues. He's capable of understanding or expressing humor, especially when he's around Benicio (who's like a less chatty version of the kid in Shane), but he approaches humor stoically, of course. His interactions with Benicio and the only two scenes in the movie where he shows fear in his voice--that would be the scene where he expresses to Irene his remorse for failing to protect Standard even though he tried his best to help him and the scene where he gets mad at Shannon for accidentally putting Irene in danger and pleads with him to leave L.A. to stay alive--all prove he's not on the spectrum. As for Léon, the Manhattan hitman who drinks nothing but milk, wears Urkel pants that are four sizes too short, relates to his houseplant better than he relates to other people and doesn't recommend to a 12-year-old girl who makes a pass at him that she ought to look for boys closer to her age...

Refn never mentioned Léon: The Professional, which I actually watched for the first time last week, as one of his influences during interviews about Drive, but I like to pretend Refn also viewed Drive as a variation on Léon that doesn't contain all that bothersome and creepy material about a 12-year-old girl's sexuality and chooses to split the Natalie Portman character into two different characters: a six-year-old kid and his mom, a more age-appropriate female for the lead to experience romantic tension with. Or maybe Refn just viewed Drive as a metaphor for Christianity's encroachment on the Norse religions, like action film reviewer Outlaw Vern once joked. Whatever the reading, Drive is one of those movies that will be subjected for years to many different interpretations/theories ("He has Asperger's!" "Nah, he's actually an alien from a planet that won't eat cereal!") or film studies essays about its efficient script or stylized visual approach (meanwhile, mainstream Hollywood has started imitating Drive: Jack Reacher has taken the Lee Child novel series and coated it in a Drive-like stylized sheen, while the vicious side of Driver clearly influenced Antoine Fuqua's remake of The Equalizer, which originally had Refn attached to it as director).

I wouldn't be surprised if Drive someday winds up as the subject of an essay for a film studies course about Jews on screen, due to a part of Drive that's not as open to interpretation as other parts of the movie. That would be the uneasy alliance between Bernie, whose line about his Hollywood past as a Golan-Globus-ish producer of '80s B-movies is straight out of The Limey ("One critic called them European. I thought they were shit"), and Nino, whose resentment over demanding respect from his anti-Semitic Italian superiors and never getting it brings about everyone's downfall, including Driver's. Their alliance reflects tensions within the Jewish community over how Jewish modern-day Jews prefer to be, with Nino being the self-hating Jew in this situation (what's the Yiddish name for "Tom"?). I particularly like how instead of on-the-nose, They Came Together-style exposition, food is used in one of their earlier scenes together to illustrate the contrasting ways Bernie and Nino view their Jewish heritage: Bernie's preference for Chinese food gives away that he's Jewish to the core, while Nino's choice of a pizzeria as a front for his business illustrates that he's a Jew who thinks he's Italian. At one point, Bernie says all we need to know about his disdain for Nino when he addresses him by his real name: Izzy.

Drive is also bound to be subjected to many experiments with its music, like last year's BBC Three rescoring of Drive, which was music-supervised by Radio 1's Zane Lowe. He got artists like Banks and Laura Mvula to record new original tracks for Drive, and the results were negatively received, although Refn gave the rescore his approval. I haven't watched the rescored version in its entirety, but after watching just two of the new songs get grafted onto the movie (one of them, "Get Away" by Chvrches, is actually pretty solid, but I would have placed it in a different scene, like one that's unscored and could use a source cue), it proves how irreplaceable both the pulsating and well-chosen existing songs and Cliff Martinez's perfectly realized original score are.

Fans of Gosling or Drive who went over the top on Twitter and tweeted angry reactions to the rescore, I'll let you in on a little secret: you can always go back to the original version of Drive. It's not as if Lowe destroyed all copies of the original version--like what George Lucas was rumored to have done to the negatives of the pre-Special Edition cuts of the first three Star Wars movies--and replaced them with his rescore. But the fans who posted melodramatic tweets in response to BBC Three's rescore acted as if that had happened. The Drive that you know and love isn't going away any time soon. Electric Youth will still be there, serenading a pleasant afternoon drive along the L.A. River with their ode to "a real human being and a real hero." And a real badass with a hammer.

Selections from the Drive score are in rotation during "AFOS Prime" on AFOS.

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