On first impression, and for good reason, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) reminded me of Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), with Ryan Gosling, the driver, sporting a similar role to Jef Costello, Alain Delon’s infamously cool and mysterious lead character. In fact, before even seeing the film, the trailers and info had me thinking about Le Samourai — a minimalist and artistic crime/action/thriller film with a mysterious, quiet, lead character who is an expert of his craft? C’mon, that could easily describe either film.
However, while there are some similarities, and Refn has clearly taken note of certain Melvillian tendencies, the films are two very different beasts, and the lead character’s similarities are merely superficial; though they act similarly, with meticulous detail, obsessive compulsions, and a kind of meditative silence, the inherent nature and psychological background of each of them is exceedingly disparate, and this comes quite clear in the second half of Drive, when the film takes a sharp turn.
Drive opens up with a brilliantly choreographed getaway — nothing else in the film quite matches the greatness of this scene. In almost perfect silence — only the sounds of car engines, police sirens, police CB radio announcements, and radio of a basketball game — the driver, toothpick in his mouth as always, evades the police with his precise driving, clever decisions, attention to detail, and meticulous demeanor. In this brief scene, we learn much about the driver’s role; his five-minute window and borderline obsessive-compulsive attention to detail illustrate the figure of a true professional.
While the music is an 80s throwback, it perfectly suits the mood of the film. In fact, I think it’s one of its greatest forces, supporting the action on screen and translating certain moods to the audience. In conjunction with the minimalist nature of the film, and the consistently somber colour palate of pastel greens and blues — highly similar to the colour palate of Le Samourai — the music sets a unique tone for the film; to be sure, you’ve probably never seen a film quite like Drive, and I think a major reason for that is Refn’s choice of music, which, though working with the visual images, hasn’t really been done before.
Part of why it works so well, though, is because, during the slower paced, especially minimalist scenes, such as when Driver and Irene stare at each other in silence — pick any one of the several scenes — or when Driver slowly bows his head near the end, before driving off, there is no music at all. This is a good choice on Refn’s part, since the art of minimalism would certainly be compromised if high tempo 80s rock music were playing in the background. On the other hand, this kind of music exceptionally suits the driving scenes.
While many parts of the film have minimalist tendencies — few images on screen, slower camera movements, decreased sense of timing and pace, accentuation of what is on screen — the pace of the film is not constant. There is a point in the film where the pace changes entirely, while the rhythm of the film — its sense of being within time — remains the same; this point is exactly when Standard is shot — the loud bang of the gun marks it. Though the film’s movement of time remains the same, and it doesn’t feel too jarring, the film becomes renewed entirely at that point. Suddenly, the minimalist love/character drama transforms into a high octane action film, replete with gruesome murder, and intense action. This sense of intensity, particularly from Gosling’s character, is seen fleetingly so far in the film — the bar scene — but it becomes the driving force of the second half.
It is during this second half that Drive separates itself completely from Le Samourai, and instead joins the league of violent psychological action films such as Taxi Driver (1976). Not only does the tempo of the film increase, so does the brevity of Driver’s situation; this trying situation is not hard to believe when considering what the Driver does, but, to the viewer, it comes as if out of nowhere, disrupting and disturbing the nature of the film. At first this threw me off, and had me rethinking the film as a whole; why the sudden shift? Why the intensity of the driver? Then I realized, this shift isn’t done in vain, it’s an artistic means of expressing a profound truth about its lead character, Drivcr, of whom the film is all about.
When Standard is shot, not only does the film’s pace become disturbed, so does Driver himself. As we know, he is distant, attentive, and acts with a sense of meditative, or perhaps medicated, silence. However, since a difficult circumstance has surfaced, the driver’s sense of detached contemplation is put to bed; he immediately becomes an intense, violently driven, psychopath, killing multiple people in cold blood without a blink of the eye. This is nothing like Le Samourai’s Jef Costello. While Jef’s sense of contemplation exudes a nature of peace and harmony, the driver’s actions in the second half of the film make it abundantly clear that his sense of contemplation is done to suppress his violent nature. It becomes quite obvious that his lack of willingness to get involved with people, his obsessive compulsions — the toothpick for example — his exact directions (to clients), and his generally calm, meditative demeanor is his way of compensating for a tapestry of intense and violent emotions.
The change of pace in the film is done to illustrate in a literal, expressive way, the change in Driver’s nature. In other words, when the film is minimalist, Driver is relaxed, and when the film is intense, Driver is violent. This is a brilliant measure that Refn has made. By doing this, he gives the viewer an unconscious appreciation of Driver. The viewer understands the character more profoundly, because they may associate him with his actions as well as with the nature of the film itself. The changes in pace throughout the film are, effectively, subtle cue’s into the nature of Driver, the character the film is illustrating.
This correlation between character and film pace is clarified in the ending. After Driver gives up the money and begins to drive away, he realizes that it’s all over. In what is perhaps the most minimalist scene of the film, he looks down at his stab wound, then he bows his head, as if he has found peace. It is during this moment that he has regained his composure (only psychologically of course, he is still wounded). His calm, meditative silence returns for one final scene, which similarly regains the original, contemplative pace of the film. In other words, the tonal change in the film speaks about a change — or should I say change back — of the main character, bringing the film full circle. The driver, again, is left isolated, driving alone into the silence.