Archive for September 19th, 2011
Well, that was good timing. Only a few days after I posted my manifesto on backstory, we’ve been given a movie that makes my argument better than I ever could: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. While not a perfect film, it’s close to a great one, and it reactivates pleasure receptors in my moviegoing brain that have remained dormant for years. Starting with its wonderfully clever opening chase scene and neon-tinged, electronically pulsating main titles, this is a film that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve: Thief, American Gigolo, To Live and Die in L.A., and any number of great ’80s crime movies fueled by the sounds of Tangerine Dream. (Note to my dad: If you’re reading this post and haven’t seen this movie yet, what are you waiting for? It even has your favorite actor.)
And much of the film’s fascination comes from how little we know about the protagonist. He’s simply called Driver. A few years ago, we’re told, he wandered into a Los Angeles garage, looking for work, and proceeded to become a brilliant stunt driver, mechanic, and wheelman. His blank gaze and difficulty in connecting with others, aside from his neighbor and her young son, hints at some kind of past trauma, but we aren’t told what this was—and we certainly aren’t told how he learned how to drive and, finally, kill so effectively, although stabbing a man in the throat with a curtain rod isn’t the sort of thing that comes without practice. He has fewer lines than any other important character in the film, and the screenplay around him, by Hossein Amini, is so spare as to seem nonexistent, in a good way. (According to the director, the shooting script was only 81 pages long.)
Much of our interest in Driver, of course, comes from the fact that he’s played by Ryan Gosling, and rarely have the gods of casting been on better behavior. Alfred Hitchcock knew that by casting a star, you can throw out the first reel, because a star brings his own aura and history to the part. For a role like this, Gosling is ideal: he’s undoubtedly a star, but also something of an unknown quantity, with a selective filmography and an air of detached reserve. His affect, as my smitten wife likes to point out, is that of a man smiling quietly at a private joke. He isn’t an actor you’d think of as an action star—apparently the role was originally intended for Hugh Jackman—but he embodies the character completely, and leaves you wanting more. Which, of course, the movie is too smart to give you. Any hint of backstory would have ruined the part: the embroidered scorpion on the back of his jacket, with its nod to Mr. Arkadin, tells us all we need to know.
Drive, then, is close to a textbook example of how to make a classic thriller, and I hope future directors and screenwriters study it intently. In the end, though, it falters a bit: what it needs is a closing aria of revenge like the one Michael Mann gave us in Thief, and what Drive provides is a little too schematic and unsatisfying. (For an example of how to do it right, please, please see here.) And yet there’s so much great stuff on display here that it transcends the weakness of its last twenty minutes. My wife will tell you that for most of the first hour, I was alternately grinning and shaking, or both, at watching something like mastery on the screen. Drive will be picked apart and admired by movie lovers for years to come, and its central lesson is clear for us all: you don’t need backstory to be a real hero. Or even, as the song over the closing credits reminds us, a real human being.