6
Jan
2012
Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People
Jordan vs. Rachel: Drive
Jordan and Rachel
Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People is a weekly chance for two Review to Be Named Staffers to come together and engage in a conversation about issues where they don't see eye to eye. Sure, the title may be more aspirational than accurate, and the tone may vary from week to week depending on the level of passion and the strength of discourse. Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People will be an outlet for RTBN writers, who, for the most part, all love each other, to revel in the two things we love even more: pop culture and arguing.


THIS WEEK: Jordan vs. Rachel on Drive


Jordan

We here at Review to Be Named have plenty of reasons to fight. As a staff of several people who are deeply passionate about pop culture, we are bound to have areas where we disagree, often vehemently.

Rachel, you and I never have problems finding things to squabble about, and when we decided to launch this feature, it quickly became pretty clear what we should discuss in this opening installment: Drive.

It was my favorite film of 2011, a year that ended up being very good when all was said and done, and a movie that, last we discussed it, you just didn't enjoy. To me, the film is equal parts action movie deconstruction, modern day noir, existential examination, and '80s B-film pastiche. To my eye, Drive is almost perfectly directed by Nicolas Refn, who doesn't waste a single shot, excellently acted by Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, and a never better Albert Brooks, and scored phenomenally by Angelo Badalamenti and Cliff Martinez (with a killer soundtrack to boot). There's something here for everyone: film geeks can marvel at the way Refn melds several disparate genres, stripping the action film down to its cold, steely core, integrating noir elements and throwing in enough of an '80s feel to be reminiscent of a living, breathing, far more awesome Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Intellectuals can take in the deeply resonant philosophical themes, utilizing one of the most fluid existential metaphors in American culture (the car) to tell the story of an existential hero that would make Sartre, Camus, or even Melville (whose film Le Samourai is a huge influence here) proud. And fans of action movies, or pop culture at all, really, will be hard pressed to find a movie that is more effortlessly cool from the last year. With all of these elements, and the critical consensus at my back (the film placed 1st on the lists of Empire Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Chicago Sun-Times and Time Out New York, made over 20 other top ten lists, and has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes), I have to confess a certain level of shock that you can't find something to like in this movie. So before you let loose with calling me (inevitably) a pretentious ass, what about this movie didn't work for you?


Rachel

The funny thing, Jordan, is that I don't even disagree with some large parts of your initial analysis. The acting, by and large, is fantastic. I've never liked Ron Perlman more, really. And it really could never be a bad decision to let Ryan Gosling's face speak for itself, considering he says like 25 words in the whole movie. I won't even really deny that Drive is an interesting experiment in genre. But I do refuse to agree to this idea of ascribing so much meaning to silence for silence's sake. In a strange way, this movie combines a bunch of elements that I just completely dislike, and winds up not amounting to any more than the sum of its parts: the 80s, music composed completely without actual instruments (I have been experiencing a strong distaste for anything electronic for a while, now), Los Angeles. But I can't deny that the movie is incredibly directed and striking visually. So maybe it just isn't for me.

But if I responded with only that, this would be an incredibly boring feature, wouldn't it?

I take issue with the film's pacing. I'm sure I'll catch a lot of shit for this one, but I feel it is slow just to be slow, as a superficial means of instilling some kind of emotional heft into the story. This might be because of the incredible awkwardness that comes across from the lack of chemistry between the leads, Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. I get it, noir heroes are aloof, and the femme fatale is damaged and distant. But in most noir (or, at least, noir that is particularly well done), there is something pulling these characters together, even if it is just a lustful attraction to the danger the other presents. Here, it seems that these people are brought together only by the fact that they're blonde and pretty and live next door to each other. The superficiality is reinforced by the choice in decade. The forties, the realm of traditional noir, are heavy, full of post-war intrigue and the nascent fear of the global destruction that WWII made clear. The eighties are all keyboards and cocaine and trickle down economics. It's a decade that almost always comes across as vapid, perhaps in part because of its cinematic identification primarily with John Hughes teen movies. The establishment of relationships in Drive suffers from playing on that superficiality. We barely get a few montages that establish the Driver's attachment to his pixie-esque girlfriend and her son, and it's not like anyone actually talks about their feelings at all. There's too much that has to be assumed, and while I'm all for implication, it only goes so far.


Jordan

To your first point, I would argue that nothing in Drive is silence for silence's sake. To put aside pretension for a minute, The Driver, like many noir heroes, is a stoic man with no name, and no past he feels the urge to discuss, an idea that fits perfectly in both the genre the film is ascribing to and (to pick up the pretension again) the larger philosophical point the film makes. The Driver is a perfect example of the standard existential hero--a man defined not by his words but by his actions, a man who creates his own essence and forms his own identity through the way that he carries himself and the choices he makes. The song that punctuates two of the film's most important scenes (when he takes Irene and Benecio through the aqueducts to that stream and when he sits in the car, recovering and preparing to leave everything behind at the film's end), "A Real Hero" by College exemplifies this idea perfectly in a refrain that would seem too on the nose if it wasn't so perfectly poignant: in these few moments, when he chooses to do something to better not himself, but the woman he loves, he becomes "a real human being, and a real hero." As for your problems with Los Angeles, I empathize with those (though, as I have grown fond of saying, my views on L.A. are evolving), but you have to admit that the City of Angels is kind of a noir trope in and of itself, and that the setting makes perfect sense, both for the themes the film explores, and for the fact that few cities require driving or romanticize it more than L.A.

I can accept that the movie isn't for you (mind-boggling though that may be), and I'm sure we could chalk this up to a difference in taste, but where's the fun in that, right? So on to your second point: the pacing. This is a discussion that comes up a lot in my discussions of another film from 2011, Meek's Cutoff but that hasn't really been raised before in terms of Drive, so I will first address this specific film's pacing before making a point about pacing in general. First off, I don't find Drive slow in the least: over the course of an hour and a half, there are two heists and accompanying car chases, and least five deaths I recall off the top of my head, and enough other violence and nudity that there's generally something right around the corner to perk up an audience even in a moment you might call slow. Beyond that, I would say the film uses the long breaks between these outbursts to make the violence that intrudes in upon these characters' lives all the more brutal and shocking. We've all seen plenty of violence on the screen before but the staccato pacing of those outbursts here actually wrenches you out of the more contemplative rest of the film, delivering a shock to the system that most action movies can only blindly aspire to.

The word from that last sentence I would hang my discussion of pacing on is contemplative. Drive is a film that wants you to think, and that lets its characters do so without necessarily telegraphing their thoughts as most films do. We never need The Driver to express his love for Irene; their googly eyes at each other get the point across. We never need to be told how torn Irene is between her duty to Standard (great name, by the way) and her attraction to The Driver. We don't need to be told why he kisses her in the elevator; all of that moment's aching significance is played out in silence but choreographed and expressed by the excellent performances. Finally, we don't need to be told why Bernie knifes Cook in the throat. We get everything we need to, but the film let's us connect the dots for ourselves instead of dumbing it down for us. I'll close this section of my screed by returning to Meek's Cutoff as a comparison point and to other films that I would be more willing to ascribe as "slow." What those films do, and why I think they are worthwhile even while some prefer to nap through them (and understandably) is give viewers the space to think for themselves. I spent much of Meek's Cutoff contemplating the necessity of religion in the stark, bleak wilderness of the Oregon desert in the 1840's; it wasn't a theme of the movie, per se, but the film had such space and such weight that it allowed my mind to wander down different avenues it opened up without ever losing me. I think one can argue Drive gives viewers that same space, though as I said earlier, I don't think this is a film that I would call slowly paced as much as I would call it purposeful and contemplative. During Meek's Cutoff, my mind wandered, even though I think it was productive wandering, caused by the space the film gave me. That wasn't true for me during one second of Drive, which had me engrossed and kept me enraptured throughout.


Rachel

Maybe my issue with the pacing isn't the fact that it is, based on plot elements, slow (because you're right, Jordan, it isn't really), but that it generally seems directionless and untethered, which, if you're looking at the larger philosophical picture that just reeks of nihilism and existentialism (two schools of thought that I generally dislike. I'm all about meaning) is sort of the point but none-the-less incredibly obnoxious. Just like the directionless drives the main couple takes on the pair's first real date, for me this movie is listless, without destination, and while the first half may be excusable as a sort of existential exercise in meaning, the second half, full of angst and gore and vendetta, seems relatively unfortunate. The appearance of Irene's recently incarcerated husband Standard (really Jordan? What the hell is that name?) is a major downturn, driving both of the already tortured leads into even darker bouts of anguish. In large part I don't think the film really earns its moments of torment or violence because of the slapdash presentation of basically any character outside of the Driver (who, I will admit, upon rewatching, has definitely grown on me. And the kiss in the elevator is, of course, beautiful). This may be a sign that the film is just too nuanced for me, but honestly, if I have to watch a movie several times before I feel any sort of attachment to it, it isn't worth my time.

Also, if you read the blog at all you know all about my deep love for Christina Hendricks, but what did they do to her? She's basically just devolved into annoying crying and a pair of boobs, in a play on a trope that, for me at least, falls flat. This, again, is an issue I take with the movie as a whole: the attempt to use symbols and stylistic elements in a way that attempts to imply depth (or, because I can hear some of you screaming, to show the actual lack of depth in life in general, which may be philosophically relevant but still, at least aims for the creation of a different kind of depth through resonance, if not substance) while actually coming across as incredibly shallow. Why should I care about these people? Even Benicio, the little boy, delivers every line in a bored drawl, and if Ryan Gosling wasn't pretty, I probably wouldn't have even sat through anything after the (admittedly pitch perfect) opening sequence.

Somewhere around the hour mark, we get all wrapped up in a convoluted story of crime hierarchies and revenge that almost completely eliminates the little attention I was able to sustain up to this point. Whereas before the film traded too much on googly eyes, as Jordan termed them, and longing stares and tormented gazes, now everything becomes hammers and stomping boots and gore. It's entirely too much of a turn for me, like the Driver is some kind of tortured Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character who is good at his core but has to be bad to be good. And the singular connection, the complete centrality of "the Girl," especially one as inconsequential as Irene, is also frustrating. He gives up everything for her, but it only seems worth it when we project all of our own feelings into their relationship, because their actual interactions (again, outside of the kiss in the elevator) give so little actual clue to a connection. She is the greatest representation of the consequences of too much implied meaning, seeing as she's this empty character that everyone projects into/on/towards. She's like Caddie in The Sound and the Fury, but in a way that gives in too much to the lack of definition that makes the character so valuable. I'm a student of modernist literature so I'm all for putting in the extra legwork, as a part of the audience, in terms of putting the pieces together. But in Drive I feel like we're being strung along, like this exercise is gratuitous, just like the deaths that come so quickly towards the end of the film.

And really, once you start referring to "the Family," particularly in a negative way, you tend to lose me. Maybe it's because I'm an Italian from Jersey and the mob questions hit a little close to home (culturally speaking only, of course"¦), but the simplistic housing of evil forces in the mob is frustrating. Also it grosses me out when people get stabbed in the eye, particularly with flatware.


Jordan

Your complete mischaracterization of existentialism aside (see how I can snipe at you while seeming like I'm not? And how I can point it out, thus ruining its effectiveness? Seriously, though, someday, in a more appropriate forum, we'll have a Civilized Discussion on that), I still have to disagree with the idea that the movie is directionless, and with the idea that Standard's appearance is a downturn. In fact, upon rewatch, I was actually fairly impressed with how easily Drive avoided the cliche of the husband returning home and becoming jealous of the wife and her new "friend." When Standard first meets The Driver, its clear he knows what has been up, but he handles it well, without any of the usual jealous husband bravado and threats, and in fact, he starts to recognize that The Driver may be a better man than he expected (though, to be fair, his opinion improves when the man does something to help him out, and our hero was really doing it for the lady, but that's a different point as well). The characters are anything but slapdash in their presentation; they are caricatures, because to some extent that's the point and that is how noir films work. But also, the film does an excellent job of filling them out with little character moments that give them color and depth, things that belie your characterization of them as slapdash. Its disappointing to me that you can't even find love for Christina Hendricks, who does a great job with the thinnest role in the film, playing a moll so well I felt like she walked right out of a '40s gangster noir and gritted herself up for a new century. I'll grant you she isn't given much to do, but I'm not sure "she had a small role" is really a valid criticism, and I think she played to type and even exceeded it pretty well. Little moments like Nino's rant about the family calling him a "kike," Standard's less-than-tactful story about how he met (and knocked up) Irene, the way Bernie interacts with Shannon and, hell, pretty much every moment Bryan Cranston gets on screen transform these characters from the two dimensional constructs they might otherwise be and make them seem like people, even if they are people playing into noir archetypes.

Again, I have to just disagree with the assertion that the film uses symbols and style to imply depth, and not for the reason you think, either. I don't think Drive is about the lack of depth in life, and I don't think it is trying to show that. Rather, I just see depth in the film that you don't seem to connect with. I think there are vast depths in all of these characters and in their interactions with one another, depth that is carried across in those little moments I spoke of earlier, in the silences they share, and by the incredibly skilled performances across the board. I don't think Drive is implying that depth; I think it is there in spades, and played out very well by a bevvy of talented actors, even those, like Christina Hendricks and Oscar Isaac (who plays Standard as a man with dreams and aspirations that have been dashed by circumstances, a man who unlike The Driver fails to take control of his life and is punished as a result) with smaller parts.

We seem to keep returning to a core issue you have with the film: its noir elements. I know for a fact you don't hate that genre, yet most of your criticisms get to the ways in which the film plays into noir constructions: the silent, brooding hero, the weak (and often slapped around) gangster's moll, the shining city hiding a seedy underbelly, the femme fatale the hero can't help but be drawn to (Irene is much more femme than fatale, but she still suffices in the role), the mobsters as villains. These are all parts of the film that bothered you, and are all staples of the genre the film is ascribing itself to. Do you perhaps have a larger problem with noir in general than I originally thought, or am I somehow mischaracterizing your criticisms?

As we go through this, I find you turning, even if ever so slightly, toward a greater admiration of the film (expressing more respect for The Driver, his clothing choices, the elevator sequence and the stellar opening). Is there a Drive fan buried deep within you that another viewing of the film might bring out? Or will we just always disagree about this movie? Since I started us off here, you can have the last word, and I'm interested to see if your views on the film, like my views on Los Angeles, might be evolving.


Rachel

Jordan, you pretentious ass (look! I only did it once! Win!), don't even get me started on my "mischaracterization of existentialism."

How can you praise Standard for not falling into a trope while saying Christina Hendricks does a great job because she falls right into hers? I'll agree that Bryan Cranston is fantastic, but the value of the caricature ends there for me, really. Empty + Empty + Cute Moment = Not Enough to Sustain my Interest.

It's strange, I've always liked noir, but I'm starting to think it might be in large part because of the visual elements rather than the character tropes. I think that my evolving views on Drive might make it a movie I can appreciate, but never one that I actually like or enjoy. I'd admit that, for what it is, Drive is well done. But just because I can recognize the skill in manufacturing doesn't mean I have to enjoy the product.

The Driver, in the end, is an existential hero, much like Hamlet, defined not by his actions but his inaction. Sure, he stabs a bunch of guys, but why doesn't he drive to the hospital after he gets shanked? He's apparently intact enough to drive away, and for a while"¦why do we have to be left with the implication that he dies even when he has the power to fix it? There's so much he could do to improve his situation, romantically and physically, when it comes to the gaping stab wound he ends the film with, but he doesn't, and that is incredibly, incredibly annoying. I get the wounded soldier routine, but Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca (the epitome of a character who gives up everything for love, even the lover in question), at least harnesses that pain into a future. The Driver, instead, seems to wallow to death in inertia and therefore gets very little of my sympathy or empathy, no matter how great his smile is.


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Note from Rachel: Unfortunately, my brilliance is sometimes a finite resource. Send us your ideas for future installments of Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here), or shoot us an e-mail at reviewtobenamed@gmail.com.


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