Now that the dust has settled a little bit from the Oscars and 2011 is firmly in the cinematic rearview mirror, I’d like to take the time to offer up a more complete treatment of Drive, last year’s second-most critically polarizing movie and also my favorite movie of the year. (For those keeping score, The Tree of Life is, by my unscientific analysis, the only movie that more divided audiences and critics – The Help’s stirring of controversy being more social and political than aesthetic.) Admittedly, I’ve already written about Drive twice, once in my review in once in my ‘best of 2011’ column. However, as with The Artist, the backlash against and defenses of this movie have taken on a particularly hard, unintelligent character (“I loved it! It was so cool!” “Ugh, are you kidding? It was so boring!”), with the result that, somehow, no one who likes it has been able to try to articulate why Drive moves them.
As with The Artist, part of the issue is the movie’s highly stylized aesthetic. Just as The Artist is a directing achievement for revisiting the silent era and revitalizing its theatrical, glossy aesthetic as a modern-day crowd-pleaser, Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn reappropriates elements of ‘80s kitsch (the satin jacket, the gorgeously saturated photography, the dreamy synthpop soundtrack) and layers them onto a deceptively simple story. It’s all style and no substance, argue detractors: just as The Artist would have caused barely a ripple if not for being a throwback to a different era of filmmaking, the foundations of Drive don’t amount to anything meaningful.
Unlike The Artist, though, Drive’s aesthetic draws on a period both of less nostalgia and less artistic brilliance. Or, to put it another way: the silent era produced Metropolis, Nosferatu, The General, City Lights, and Intolerance, among many other masterpieces. The ‘80s, as defined by the aesthetic that Drive draws on, gave us Blade Runner, Scarface, and… uh… well, that’s about it, really. That, combined with its atonal violence, means that the audience that Drive ends up appealing to is a far more specific one: basically, young males with a particular affinity for a Eurocentric style of directing. In other words, me. Having that sort of narrow but vocal support, I think, can end up working against a movie, and logically so: when a bunch of people from a certain group are trumpeting a particular thing, be it a movie or a style of music or an article of clothing, it takes on a certain totemic status, making it hard for those outside the group to take it for itself.
I am, clearly, a member of that same demographic that so fervently admires Drive. I think, though, that Drive’s appeal to this group and the fundamental truth of its story are intimately intertwined. There is, in other words, something beyond the exciting style and cool soundtrack that is particularly appealing to my demographic, and it’s at the heart of what makes Drive a great film.
Both Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn have been much quoted on the idea that Drive is a fairy tale; as Refn put it, “you have the driver who’s like a knight, the innocent maiden, the evil king and the dragon.” But, with apologies to director and star, they’re wrong, because in fairy tales, the main characters always live happily ever after; Drive isn’t nearly so optimistic, or so frozen in time, and if the Driver and Irene lived happily ever after, it would defeat the point of the movie, anyway. Drive isn’t a fairy tale so much as a medieval romance, a sort of modern day chanson de geste complete with a chaste love, a coat of arms (a golden scorpion on a white field), and – yes, here at least they were right – a knight in shining satin armor.
What separates the romance – and Drive – from fairy tale is that, where fairy tales of the sort that Refn thinks his movie is are about the rescue of the kingdom and the union of the prince and princess, romances are concerned with more complex and monolithic questions of duty, chivalry, and above all love, both as an ideal in itself and as an ideal limited by the real. The highest ideal of the medieval romance is the knight who not only loves a lady, but who loves her purely, and fights for her honor with no hope of reward but for the sake of bringing her that honor. Better still, thus, if she is already married and occupies a position high above his own, a situation which imposes certain social strictures to maintain the purity of the knight’s love. Our medieval forebears, of course, had few illusions about human nature, and recognized as easily as we do that iterated out over an extended period such a romance can only result in misfortune. That is why the most famous medieval lovers to come down to us today are not Roswall and Lillian but Lancelot and Guinevere, who give into temptation and in so doing destroy not only themselves but the Round Table and King Arthur’s entire idealized kingdom.
It should be clear that Drive works on the same principle, with the Driver as the heroic knight-errant and Irene as the lady love that he dedicates himself to, just as she herself is already dedicated to her far-off prince. (Though it’s admittedly a stretch to imagine Oscar Isaac as a prince of any sort.) In the romance, lust gets in the way and the romance loses its purity, or else the knight fails to live up to his ideal, but either way, it necessarily ends in tragedy. The Driver’s love for Irene is never consummated, but the situation implodes nonetheless, on account of him and his idealized chivalry as surely as Guinevere is undone by Lancelot’s love. The narrative innovation of Drive is that it recognizes that, in taking place in a world without chivalry and where violence is not an accepted way of life (as of course it is for the knight-errant), it is Driver’s very commitment to Irene – and the extreme behavior that becomes necessary to protect her – that prevents him from ever being able to be with her. His love may be pure, but once he has had to literally stomp someone’s face in for it, he can never be, as surely as he’ll never wash the bloodstains out of that white jacket.
I don’t mean to say that Drive is good because it can be read as a medieval romance; I’m sure that plenty of medieval romances are bad, just as I know that many movies are. I do think, though, that reading it in this way allows us to understand more clearly where the movie finds something true to supply its dramatic weight, which is that the Driver knows and accepts from the start that there is no future to his love for Irene. The power, and the tragedy, of Drive come in the fact that his character is so fully understandable. Critics of the film are fond of pointing out that we know very little about him, but for once that lack of a backstory is essential to his character. We know that he came to Los Angeles some time ago, alone; we know that the only person he has any sort of human connection to, prior to Irene, is his boss Shannon; we know that he moonlights as a getaway driver, but it’s a pursuit that seems to have little importance to or impact on him, a thrill or a pastime more than a career. He is isolated, both physically and emotionally; even his dreams, of racing a stockcar, are not his own but projected onto him by Shannon.
Then, into all this isolation, suddenly and without intention, there bursts Irene, this small, lovely, seemingly spotless woman and her child. Crucially, she is married and therefore unattainable, and that unattainability makes her, for him, less a person than a symbol, something that can be perfect and idealized because it can never really be known. It is this symbol, not any real person, that the Driver falls in love with and sacrifices everything to protect. (And, on a sidenote, the casting of Carey Mulligan, whose essence as an actress is of wide-eyed, lovable innocence, is part of what makes this work.)
The natural objection on narrative grounds is that there’s no reason that we should care if the main character’s motivation is essentially a fantasy, but what matters isn’t whether or not it’s real but that it’s real to him – and that, regardless of any of that, the consequences for his actions are necessarily and irrevocably real. That is, I suspect, why Drive appeals so strongly to the particular demographic that it does, partly because it celebrates a heroic, idealized love that appeals to the sort of kid who grew up reading legends about King Arthur, and partly because, like the best of those medieval romances, it sees that such loves are necessarily impossible and can never end well.
None of this is to say that you have to like Drive; it remains a specialty movie, and plenty of people have been perplexed or bored by stylized Scandinavian directing in the past. It is to say, though, that the movie is drawing on a set of real human emotions and situations, and that it allows those situations to play out honestly. That’s more than you can say about most movies that ever get made, and it’s rare that the ones that do also manage to establish themselves as the vanguard of the cinematic cool as well. You don’t have to enjoy or even admire Drive — but you do have to acknowledge that it’s more than a style-heavy frame for Ryan Gosling to bash heads.