Saturday, 1 October 2011

Drive (2011) Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

Female Characters: 2 (Irene/Blanche)
Male Characters: 5 (Driver/Shannon/Bernie/Nino/Standard)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No

Let me just start by saying, and I feel that I might have to say this a lot in the course of writing this blog, that despite my criticisms I really enjoyed this film. Mainly because it has the best soundtrack I’ve heard since last year’s TRON:Legacy, but also because it explores some interesting ideas regarding masculinity and heroism. However …

Drive contains only two female characters, and whilst unfortunately I don’t find this particularly unusual,  I was stunned that so little screen time was given to such high profile actresses as Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks. I realise that Hendricks is making the transition from TV to film and so might not be landing major roles just yet, but her amazing performance as Joan in Mad Men (not to mention the constant public scrutiny of her body in the media) has made her something of a household name. As for Mulligan, granted she is still an up-and-comer, but with a recent Oscar nomination to her name I’d expect to see her in a bigger role. Adam Smith, reviewing the film for Empire Magazine, writes , ‘Mulligan might not have a lot to do, but she looks believably vulnerable’. It seems to me however that, from the little we see of her character in the film, she seems to be coping quite well with her position as a single parent with a husband behind bars. Just take for example the scene where she is shopping in a supermarket with her young son – there are no tantrums, no obvious signs of stress or vulnerability, and basically no indication at all that she needs to be rescued. I found Ryan Gosling’s character similar to that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, not just because of the late night driving scenes, but also because of the way he latches onto a female figure, idealises her and uses her as motivation for being a better person. Also, both characters feel a conscious need to play the role of the hero and, not knowing how to do so, resort to violent, hyper-masculine actions. In Drive Gosling plays the strong, silent type to a tee. He is a Man with No Name and is usually seen chewing on a toothpick, a parody of Western screen heroes such as Clint Eastwood. In a recent interview Gosling commented on his character’s cinematic delusions:  
I think he’s somebody who’s seen too many movies. He’s confusing his life for a film, and he’s made himself the hero of his own action film. He’s just kind of lost in the mythology of Hollywood
The ‘mythology of Hollywood’ is an intriguing idea, and the film seems to explore how images in cinema have influenced our perceptions of what it means to be a hero. Gosling commented further on this idea and what it means for his character:
I think that he’s psychotic, but he’s not a psychopath. He’s a myth as well, you know? We tried to treat the film like a fairy tale, like Los Angeles is this fairy-tale land based on fantasies, and he’s the knight in his mind and Irene [Carey Mulligan] is the damsel in distress. Bernie Rose [Albert Brooks] is the evil wizard, and Ron Perlman’s the dragon he needs to slay. 
This idea of an L.A. fairytale helped me to look at the film in a different way. I still think that Irene’s character is not presented as vulnerable, but really she doesn’t need to be. The Driver believes that he must play the part of the hero, and therefore he needs someone to rescue, so Irene and her son present him with an opportunity. There does however seem to be some reluctance on his part to accept this role, and in one scene he pauses and sighs before deciding to approach Irene and offer her a lift when her car breaks down. It's almost as if he has taken a moment to get into character as the hero and this scene in particular reminded me of a the knight on horseback rescuing the damsel in distress.

Gosling seems to be drawn to films which explore issues of masculinity, having co-starred in 2010’s Blue Valentine. In this film his character has a hard time dealing with society’s strict definitions of gender roles, often resorting to violence and aggression to assert his masculinity. With several brutal, and often fairy schlocky scenes of violence, Drive also places this theme at the forefront. The most extreme example is the lift scene, where Gosling kick's a man's head in until it resembles a smashed pumpkin. It is juxtaposed with a moment of dreamy, ethereal romance, in which Irene and the Driver share their first kiss. This technique is used throughout the film and it serves to further emphasis the extremity, and often the absurdity, of the violence. This scene could easily have been sanitised, as it usually is in typical action movies, in order to dehumanise the act of the murder. Instead, the brutality of this particular scene, and the look of shame on Gosling's face afterwards, are what make it so effective. As a result of trying to live up to society’s, and his own, expectations of manliness and heroism, the Driver has completely lost himself in a fantasy. Mulligan’s very realistic reaction is also important –she is justifiably horrified and shocked. If this were a typical action movie she probably would have swooned at this display of savagery. Or perhaps, as I was anticipating, she might have reacted like Karen in this scene from Goodfellas(1990).

The soundtrack is massively important for this film, and director Nicolas Winding Refn scores major brownie points with me for citing John Hughes as an unlikely source of inspiration, appreciating his talent for ‘using music to really underscore emotion.’ The stand-out track which really sums up the film is A Real Hero by College feat. Electric Youth, as it highlights exactly what the Driver is trying to do throughout this film – remain a real human being whilst trying to live up to Hollywood standard of what a hero should be, in a movie he has ultimately constructed in his head.