Driver: [on the phone] There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own. Do you understand? [pause]
Driver: Good. And you won’t be able to reach me on this phone again.
Drive sneaks up on you, rather rolls right past. [I watched the DVD twice, on successive nights.] It’s fast paced, starting with an enigmatic ‘man-with-no-name’ sort of fellow simply known for what he does. He rode into town a few years ago and got a job at a garage run by a man named Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Shannon walks a fine line between legitimacy—providing stunt driving services to the movie industry—and criminality—arranging getaway cars for an underworld breaking and entering crowd. In either case, Driver (Ryan Gosling) is Shannon’s main man, and has extraordinary road skills clearly equal to the best race car drivers in the smaller circuits. Driving is his life.
… with the exception of taking an interest in the woman a couple of doors down from his modest LA apartment. We really don’t have a context for why his social life is basically nonexistent, not to mention naive. The woman’s name is Irene (Carey Mulligan), and she’s a single mother by virtue of the fact her husband is in prison. Circumstances eventually bring Driver and Irene and her cute little son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), together. Driver is laconic to say the least, and Gosling handles that part of his role superlatively, never appearing wooden or stilted. He’s simply quiet and ‘efficient of expression,’ preferring to walk the walk vs. talk the talk. The method acting of Steve McQueen in several of McQueen’s films comes to mind, but particularly Bullitt—where you act, not speak.
But he does not hesitate to lay down in speech precisely what a situation demands, such as in the aftermath of a foiled robbery (actually the pivotal accident in the story):
Driver: Now, you just got a little boy’s father killed. And you almost got us killed. And now you’re lying to me. So how about this? From now on, every word out of your mouth is the truth. Or I’m going to hurt you.
This ultimatum is coolly and forcefully delivered to Blanche (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) while he has thrown her supine on a bed with his one driver-gloved hand covering her mouth, and his other driver-gloved hand pointing a long finger almost as a schoolteacher. There is no doubt he means what he says. She has been the reason his normally flawless getaway driving operation goes south. Up until the point Driver decided to take on this job—on his own and not going wholly thru Shannon—he has seemed peaceful in demeanor. He has not shown signs that he knows how to handle himself in a physical conflict, mano a mano. Shortly after this scene with Blanche, however, we see that Driver not only streetfights like a professional, his violence is focused and quick, and absolutely as ruthless as any of the sleaze he winds up confronting.
I’m thinking special forces, perhaps a military or intelligence background, in any case he’s hell on wheels. The perfect avenger, which is how the movie plays out. The writers and director create a character with enormous internal power, unstressed and almost Eastern, like Caine in the Kung Fu series… only Driver will totally, physically hurt those who attack what he values. No need to go into detail; this is what reminds me of Sin City, a graphic novel. We in the audience are drawn to what appears in Driver to be a core of uncompromised, unadorned moral strength, yet we note his willingness to drive for those whose ostensible activities involve grand theft. Obviously not fully moral, but certainly possessing a unique code of honor.
Perhaps that’s the real reason I watched the movie twice: emotional fuel drawn from a uniquely qualified moral inspiration. I remember how I felt watching Clint Eastwood in the late 1960s with his roles in the Spaghetti Westerns, especially A Fistful of Dollars (1967). He was the ‘Man with no Name’ who helped a woman in a desolate, dangerous place ‘because, one time, no one was there to help his woman.’ Eastwood’s character—given the temporary name Joe as I recall, by one of the townspeople who befriends him—conveyed a lot of heroic qualities for teenage boys and young men in my era. Probably those movies and this one, Drive, overstate the real threats most of us ever face, but having someone in art to emulate makes it easier to stand up for what’s right, assert yourself at work, help the defenseless, etc.
Does Drive have similar qualities to the classic laconic American hero film? You betcha. But it’s its own breed, too. And, yes, it gives me a lot of respect for the acting of Ryan Gosling. [2011 was a big year for the 32-year-old actor: in addition to Drive, he starred in the Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Drive is by far the best vehicle of all three.] I’ll let the reader determine for himself whether the ending is up or down; for me I will say it was ‘satisfying.’ Enough to be happy to sit thru a third showing. The movie has that kind of quality, almost mesmerizing in its economy. In addition to being a film of few words, it’s a film of focused action… for the two or three main characters.
Driver doesn’t fidget. He either moves purposefully and forcefully, usually quickly, or sometimes tenderly. You will pick up on so many little things on each viewing, for example, the camera dwells on Driver’s hands from time to time, away from the plotline. Whether tightening a bolt on a transmission or adjusting a carburetor, his fingers are remarkably quick and graceful like a musician’s. Driver resonates with a joyous countenance in such mundane scenes, as if he’s having a peak experience. Then the driving scenes themselves… outstanding. For symbolism and a hero (or antihero) for our times, Drive has all the marks of a classic.