AN ART-HOUSE ACTION MOVIE
Whoever handled marketing for ‘Drive‘ back in 2011 ran commercials made the movie look like Ryan Gosling joined the latest installment of the Fast & Furious.
“A Hollywood stuntman who doubles as a getaway driver at night. He’s icy cool, but his pretty neighbor and her little boy are meting his heart. With a million dollar score, he can finally leave his old life behind. He can outrun the cops, but can he escape his past?”
Audiences were confused. What they saw was a stylish, art-house movie exploring the a character’s descent into madness, disguised as a car flick.
The driver is cold, distant and emotionless. An automaton who’s purpose is to drive. He does it with skill, and very few words. The opening scene sets the tone. The meticulous planning of the driver helps the bad guys escape a robbery, not with his blinding speed, but by outsmarting the cops with his street knowledge, using highway overpasses and tall buildings to hide from the police helicopter. The director attempts to make it clear that the driver is not like the bad guys; he is never in the frame together with them, even when in the getaway car.
The 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle SS ‘hero car’ says a lot about the protagonist. This is not something from the ’69 to ’71 golden years of muscle cars. Many wouldn’t even recognize that this was was raced in NASCAR by Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip to victories. Far from flashy in primer-grey, it’s a perfect low-key muscle car for a getaway river.
The title character is a movie stunt driver and part-time getaway driver, but his ‘front’ is as an auto mechanic. Inside his boss Shannon’s garage is an incredible array of classic American cars including a 1955 Ford Thunderbird, 1967 Pontiac GTO, 1969 Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado, 1969 Dodge Charger and 1969 Plymouth Road Runner.
One fateful day, the driver’s pretty, blonde neighbor Irene, and her son Benicio, show up at the garage in their busted Toyota Camry. The movie completely changes, and pace slows down, as the audience is presented with a character study of a lonely man making a human connection.
The driver is a quiet guy, and expresses little emotion, few aspirations. But his boss Shannon (Brian Cranston from ‘Breaking Bad‘) has visions of running a race team, now that he has the driver! Shannon wants to borrow $400,000+ from a local gangster (played by Albert Brooks of ‘Taxi Driver’ fame) and invites him to the track to watch the driver run laps in a turn-of-the-century Chevy Monte Carlo NASCAR.
The movie is stylish; like a hot-pink and baby-blue 80’s version of ‘Taxi Driver‘ and Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn uses non-verbal communication such as music, colour and lighting to set the tone. We learn little about the stoic driver’s backstory, but the audience sees him change as his relationship with Irene and Benicio blossoms. The driver starts believing that he too can have a normal life, and that he can leave his life of crime in the rearview mirror.
In a misguided attempt to ‘help’ his new family, the driver agrees to a million dollar heist. It he can pull this off, he can be free from his criminal life. But everything goes wrong, the driver is double-crossed, and a second action movie scene occurs. In a recreation of the classic chase scene 1968’s ‘Bullitt‘ the driver is hero behind the wheel of a 2011 Ford Mustang GT pursuing the bad guys in their full-size, V8 powered Chrysler 300C, standing in for the iconic Dodge Challenger from the original.
The driver escapes with the loot, and wants to take Irene and her son to start a new life together. But the gangsters he stole the cash from have other ideas, and threaten the lives of the driver’s surrogate family. Rather than helping Irene, the driver as brought the underworld life to her doorstep, endangering the lives of the people he cares for most. What’s a gangster to do?
In full Travis Bickle mode, the driver goes on a vehicular rampage, brutalizing everyone who poses a threat his loved ones. Much as he wants to be the good guy, the driver is consumed by his dark side to save the girl.
It’s easy to see why this movie alienated audiences upon release. Is the driver the hero, or just another villain with a soft spot? Does leaving the blood-stained bag of heist money next to the bodies of his enemies make him better than them? It’s open to audience interpretation whether this is a happy ending or not…but this is definitely not your average action movie.