Now that Drive is out on DVD and Blu-Ray, it can be studied at length by those of us eager to crack the code on Nicholas Winding Refn’s oddly beautiful mash up of noir heist movie clichés, 80s power ballad emotionalism, and European art house sensibilities. When I first saw the film, I enjoyed it immensely. Now that I’ve had the time to dissect it, my admiration has only grown. I love this movie.
One thing that has become clear to me upon repeated viewings is how much Drive resembles a . . . Western. And in particular how much it resembles George Stevens’s 1953 classic Shane. That movie, you may recall, stars Alan Ladd as a tight-lipped drifter named Shane who wanders into a dispute between a small group of homesteaders and a ruthless rancher. Shane becomes close to the Starrett family, father Joe (Van Heflin), wife Marian, and young Joey (Brandon De Wilde). When the ranchers, headed by crusty old Emile Meyer, employ a black-clad gunslinger named Wilson (Jack Palance in a supremely evil performance) to run off or kill the homesteaders, Shane straps on his gun and rides into town to settle things once and for all.
There are some surface similarities between this plot and Drive because Drive also concerns a silent loner who becomes involved with a small family. When Driver (Ryan Gosling) befriends Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), he is drawn into the world of Irene’s ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Issac) who is indebted to a group of gangsters. After a heist goes wrong and people start dying, Driver must resort to violence to, well, settle things once and for all.
As I said, these are surface similarities, but I’m not trying to draw a direct comparison in terms of plot. Drive clearly has many influences, from James Sallis’s poetic original novel to the music of REO Speedwagon. What I find fascinating, however, is the way Drive seems to share the same emotional core as Shane.
Both films are about unconsummated passion and unspoken love and the way these feelings are channeled into acts of violence. Shane has many fine attributes and chief among them is the quiet way it develops the love story at its center. Shane and Marian never kiss, never speak of their love for each other. Instead their passion plays out in looks, in the space between words. It’s a romance between adults, between two people who know these feelings can’t go anywhere. One person who notices, however, is Joe. In a late scene, as he prepares to ride off to town to face certain death (a journey, it turns out, that Shane will take for him) Joe tells his wife in so many words that if he dies, she is free to marry Shane. It’s the most tender scene in the film because it is about a man who loves a woman so much he’s willing to see her be happy with another man.
Of course, Shane loves her so much he’s unwilling to see Joe go into town and get himself killed. Instead, he puts on his buckskin and six-shooter and rides off to kick ass. The sublimation of sexual tension into male-on-male violence is a trope of the Western, of course, but it reaches its zenith in Shane. Because Shane can’t bed the other guy’s wife, he does the next best thing and rides into town and kills everybody.
Like Shane, Drive is notable for its odd mix of tones. Refn’s film contains moments of great tenderness. Consider the shot of Driver carrying a sleeping Benicio to bed while Irene watches, her eyes telling you all you need to know about this woman’s hopes for this man and this little boy. In fact, Driver and Irene spend most of the film communicating with their eyes. Since Gosling and Mulligan are two of our best and most expressive actors (Carey Mulligan has the best smile in movies right now), the film can allow its center to be calm and silent. The film is also, on the other hand, an ass-kicking bonanza in its final forty-five minutes. Driver and Irene share a single kiss, in an elevator with a hired assassin looking on, and then Driver smashes the guy’s head to pieces.
Refn has said that he purposely positioned the film’s moment of greatest tenderness with its moment of most savage violence. Some viewers will doubtless think this juxtaposition goes way too far over the top, but this marriage of love and bloodshed underlies roughly half of all the action movies ever made. Odd as if may seem to say, cinema has always used violence as an expression of the frightening fragility of masculine emotions. The more fragile the emotions the man feels for the woman, the more violently he will treat the man who threatens her.
Both films position their hero as a silent loner who becomes the protector of a married woman and a small boy. Unable to consummate the relationship with the woman, the hero attempts to protect her husband instead. In the end, he expresses the depth of his love in a violent showdown with a superior force of evil men. Wounded, he rides off into the horizon to an uncertain future, possibly even to his own death.
That, my friends, is a damn love story.