My 100 favourite films. Entry #39: Drive.

Drive (2011)
directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks
country: USA
genre: Thriller

Visuals: 9
Writing: 6
Everyday watchability: 7

The text of this post is adapted from a response I wrote in an online forum to the question, "If I like Drive, what else will I like?" I feel that placing Drive in the pantheon of film history helps explain what makes it great. 

I believe that Drive belongs to a class of film that hasn't been popular in the mainstream for quite some time. There has been a general trend in film for the past 30 years toward movies that are more spectacular in nature and much less subtle with things like character motivations.

In the 1960s in America, films were going through a huge change. More and more, films were being made by directors who had much greater control over the film's look and feel. Furthermore, with the end of the Hayes production code, which required films adhere to a certain moral standard, films were more commonly being made about darker subjects and with characters of more questionable moral character. The climate was finally right for the birth of the anti-hero. John Ford's The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) both feature a protagonist filled with inner conflict and outer hatred, portrayed surprisingly adeptly by John Wayne both times. The Searchers is more colorful and somewhat preoccupied with scenic vistas, but the beginnings of the character archetype are very much there.

In Japan, Akira Kurosawa was making films like Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962) and High and Low (1963). Kurosawa had an almost craftsmanlike way of making films, where simplicity ruled over expressionism. His characters were often those of ambiguous morality (and greatly influenced by the works of Ford), displayed simply in front of the camera for the audience to unravel.
French neo-noir films like Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970) tell their stories in a very straightforward style with characters that are nearly deadpan, but there’s a still a hint of depth and human warmth to them.

These paved the way for a character like Bullitt (1968) who is by most standards a person of upstanding moral character, but with more depth than commonly seen in movie cops. He shares a kinship with The Driver in that he’s quiet, confident, and understated but quite deep. Bullitt almost definitely gave some inspiration to Dirty Harry (1971) and The French Connection (1971), with characters and style that is much more animated than Drive, but with definite thematic similarities. Furthermore, Bullitt and The French Connection both feature classic card chases shown in a distinctly simple style, without the grandiosity of car chases to come in later years. Drive’s driving sequences owe a great deal to these.

This may seem an odd jump, but Taxi Driver (1976) is very much in league with these films. Scorsese took the antihero idea to the extreme, with a main character who is clearly very disturbed, but who also spouts some truth in his insanity. His character has some similarities to Gosling's, particularly in the scene where he just stares at a pimp without any apparent concern.

This was probably about the time that the antihero essentially became a caricature of itself, with Dirty Harry getting more and more grizzled in The Enforcer (1976) and Sudden Impact (1983). We weren’t really brought back around until Lethal Weapon (1987) and shortly after, Die Hard (1988), an excellent and surprisingly human film.

I’ve mostly talked action movies because that’s where a lot of this was happening. As film moved into the 1990s, audiences wanted everything bigger, including its heroes. Heroes were larger than life, with action stars being amazingly smooth and indestructible. I think people have gradually been getting burned out by this. Those heroes from the 60s and 70s (like Bullitt, Popeye Doyle of The French Connection and even John McClane from Die Hard) had some serious flaws and were far from invincible).

In the 2000s, movies such as Last Life in the Universe (2003) told humanist stories about people with a dark past, but people that were good. It was a simply told movie, much like Drive. Junebug (2005) probably has the closest stylistic similarity to Drive, telling the story oh-so-calmly. Characters, emotions and feelings are never fully explained, but we get a great sense of who these people are. Ryan Gosling’s performance in Half Nelson (2006) earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination, and it’s another story told straight-ahead with characters of complexity.

Drive is, I think and hope, part of a trend to move toward more complex characters who don’t telegraph their complexity. It’s a depth that we can see unfold (very) slowly over the course of the film. Most of the questions we have about the driver are left unanswered, but the exercise of filling in the gaps is enjoyable and interesting.