Thursday, December 08, 2011


Drive (2011, USA, Nicolas Winding Refn)
Book by James Sallis

I drive. That’s all I do.

True to his word, Driver (Ryan Gosling) does indeed drive, both for a living and for fun as well. He is a movie stunt driver by day and rent-for-hire driver by night. His conditions to prospective clients are simple and to the point:

Tell me where we start, where we're going and where we're going afterwards, I give you five minutes when you get there. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours, no matter what. Anything a minute either side of that and you're on your own. I don't sit in while you're running it down. I don't carry a gun. I drive.

Given that driving is his passion, it is not a surprize that when he wants to impress Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), Driver takes them on a car ride by asking a simple question:

You Wanna See Something?

And when he is not behind the wheel of his car, he works in a garage fine tuning cars so that they can glide in blissful motion.

His entire existence is defined by his car’s movement but even when he is living outside of his car, his internal machine is ticking away, slowly counting down the time before life gives him the green signal to speed off in his car.

This harmony with his internal self means that he is always at peace when he has to wait at a red light as the waiting period until the light turns green is synchronized with his heartbeats. Evidence of this is provided early on in the film when in the initial car getaway sequence, Driver is able to calmly wait at a red light while facing a police car straight on.

Driver is not only calm but a man of few words. Yet his silence emits a strength and portrays a man with no emotional ties. However, as often seen in noir films, an emotionless man often falls for the wrong woman.

In Driver’s case, the woman in question Irene is a perfect girl next door but the problem arises from her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) who has a lot of unpaid debt to clear up.

One day Driver comes across Standard lying bloodied in the parking lot while his 4 year old son Benicio is in a state of shock. Driver decides to fix things. Since the film does not give Driver’s backstory, one can assume his need to do good is out of his love for Irene. However, James Sallis’ book perfectly outlines two examples of why Driver needs to help Irene and Benicio. The following section explains how Driver lost his father and was placed in a foster home.

Once he’d got his growth, his father had little use for him. His father had had little use for his mother for a lot longer. So Driver wasn’t surprised when one night at the dinner table she went after his old man with butcher and bread knives, one in each fist like a ninja in a red-checked apron. She had one ear off and a wide red mouth drawn in his throat before he could set his coffee cup down. Driver watched, then went on eating his sandwich: Spam and mint jelly on toast. That was about the extent of his mother’s cooking.

He’d always marvelled at the force of this docile, silent woman’s attack -- as though her entire life had gathered toward that single, sudden bolt of action. She wasn’t good for much else afterwards.....
-- Chapter three, pages 10-11.

In one swift move, Driver lost both his parents, one permanently and the other to prison. That meant Driver was forced to fend for himself and his entire life was a struggle. So he does not want Benicio to suffer that same fate. When he sees Standard lying with his face beaten up, Driver has a flashback to his childhood and sees his youth reflected in Benicio. At that moment, Driver decides to put his life on the line to ensure that Benicio will not grow up in a broken home.

Another segment from the book explains how Driver’s need to dish out justice arose in his youth.

Driver’s first and last fight at the new school happened when the local bully came up to him on the schoolyard and told Driver he shouldn’t he hanging around Jews. Driver had vaguely been aware that Herb was Jewish, but he was still more vague about why anyone would want to make something of that. This bully liked to flick people’s ears with his middle finger, shooting it off his thumb. When he tried it this time, Driver met his wrist halfway with one hand, stopping it cold. With the other hand he reached across and very carefully broke the boy’s thumb. -- Chapter Thirty, page 137.

The film gives a few examples that Driver is not afraid to take anyone on. When a former robber approaches him for another job in a diner, Driver dismisses the man with the following words:

How about this - shut your mouth or I'll kick your teeth down your throat and I'll shut it for you.

Essentially, Driver’s life is shaped by his childhood experience and just like his mother’s sudden act of violence, Driver is willing to jolt into sudden action to defend what he believes is right. The following words from the book could easily apply to Driver... though her entire life had gathered toward that single, sudden bolt of action...

This sudden bolt of action comes when Driver ruthlessly beats up a thug in an elevator while Irene watches in fear. That burst of violence scares Irene and distances her from him but Driver was only acting out what he saw in his youth. The same bolt of action takes place in the motel when Driver has to defend himself when he is attacked by Nino’s (Ron Perlman) men.

The Latin Touch & the Exotic Life

The film changes the identity of Irene’s character slightly from the book. In the book, she is Latin.

He’d been coming up the stairs when the door next to his opened and a woman asked, in perfect English but with the unmistakable lilt of a native Spanish speaker, if he needed any help.

Seeing her, a Latina roughly his age, hair like a raven’s wing, eyes alight, he wished to hell he did need help. But what he had in his arms was about everything he owned.
-- Chapter ten, pages 43-44

The words in the book give Irene an angelic appearance and this is something which the film manages to depict by having a halo like gentle light lit over her head in a few scenes, especially the elevator kiss. This lighting in the film manages to save needless dialogues and give audience an idea about how Driver perceives Irene.

In the book, Driver has no money so he is always looking for cheap places to eat or to drink. However, his world is not all about inexpensive things because he incorporates some ethnic flavor in his life by eating at Latin restaurants or drinking Pacifico beer.

He caught a double-header of Mexican movies out on Pico, downed a couple of slow beers at a bar nearby making polite conversation with the guy on the next stool, then had dinner at the Salvadoran restaurant up the street from his current crib, rice cooked with shrimp and chicken, fat tortillas with that great bean dip they do, sliced cucumbers, radish and tomatoes. -- Chapter seven, page 28

The film manages to pay a tribute to this Latin influence in a very subtle way. In the supermarket sequence, Driver’s back is framed against a beer cooler packed with Corona. This is not simple product placement but the inclusion of Corona serves a purpose. Corona’s marketing campaign plays up the exotic element of drinking this Mexican beer. However, once the marketing campaign and lime is taken away, Corona is exposed for what it is -- a cheap tasteless commercial beer. It gives the illusion of being something that it is not. In a sense, it is a perfect drink for Driver as it would satisfy his criteria for drinking cheap beer with a Latin twist.

James Hansen gives another example of Driver’s preference for the less flashier side of LA:

...Despite these apparent dangers, the Driver’s world is understated, simple, and perhaps second rate – he waits on the end of a Clippers game, not the Lakers.

The book flushes out this side of Driver’s world completely but it is quite commendable that the film also manages to portray these aspects in a few cuts.

Without too many words

It is essential for the book to provide Driver’s childhood via flashbacks so as to provide context for his current behavior. However, the film does not need to provide flashbacks or a backstory because the expressions of the characters combined with snippets of dialogue should be enough. This is where writer Hossein Amini and director Nicolas Winding Refn deserve a lot of credit because they have managed to precisely extract enough material from the book to depict the various characters with no flashbacks and very little dialogue. The actors then manage to put the finishing touches by providing depth to their characters. Ryan Gosling is perfect in his role but even Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston do great justice to their parts by conveying the right tone. A few lines of dialogue emits Nino’s frustration with his life and why he tries to pull off a nonsensical robbery. A single scene and line of dialogue is all one needs to understand Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks). When Driver first meets Bernie, Driver does not extend his hand to Bernie.

Driver: my hands are a little dirty

To which Bernie replies: so are mine

Those three words sum up Bernie’s shady personality perfectly.

Style Upgrade

Nicolas Winding Refn sprinkles the film with 1980’s music which evokes the cinema of Michael Mann. Also, Refn adds a pinch of David Lynch and that comes out in the sequence when Driver takes takes Irene and Benicio for a fun ride. The background music during the car ride channels David Lynch’s Lost Highway road, albeit the scene in Drive takes place in broad daylight.

Overall, Drive is perfect example of how to properly adapt a book and still give the film a unique identity with just a few modifications. Like Driver's car, the film is easily able to shift gears and speed up when needed and slow down in a few sequences. Easily one of the best films of the year!

[Update]: News emerged today that James Sallis will write a sequel to Drive called Driven....

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