Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn. Way way way back in the fall of 2011, I first started seriously entertaining the idea of making a little dumb blog to spew forth whatever observations I had on the movie I had just seen, and also to catalogue in a lightly OCD way all of the films I was watching. I had many mis-fires, where I would see something that was really striking and tell myself, now this one is the one that should be the first entry on my film blog!, only to just let it pass and not start a film blog at all. Finally, at the end of January 2012, I just picked a random thing, a season of a TV show, and began pretty unceremoniously. But when I saw Drive, I thought that this is the one, this is a really remarkable movie, one of the truly remarkable stand-out cinematic movie-theatre experiences I’ve had in the last 20 years. Still, I did not start my film blog. But recently I had to re-watch it, and I thought I’d finally give it its due.
I’m not really sure what I would have written in 2011, what parts of the movie would have jumped out to me to be noteworthy. At the time, I was much more social-deconstructionist, critical-theory text-minded than I am today. Maybe I would have made some allegory between the film and post-911 culture or something. Probably though, the same things that jumped out to me today would have jumped out then, the way Winding Refn uses violence in that weirdly bold, brutally realistic, yet still cartoony way (although I probably would have used the term hyperreal). No matter what, I would have definitely mentioned something about the amazing soundtrack, which has gone on to be a pretty beloved modern soundtrack, especially this opening montage song. I’m trying to give some kind of mature, retroactive assessment for why this movie appealed to me, especially because it looks like it’s already kind of entered the modern canon a little bit. Looking back, I remember the intro montage, the sleek, stylistic way that it shows LA in the nighttime, which is a pretty classic shorthand in modern cinema culture. LA, cars, buildings, night time, crime. All of those things go together, the way people used to understand all the tropes of an old Western. And really, watching it again, I’m shocked by how classical it all is—this is a very straightforward, non-postmodern, non-ironic, non-quote marks story about a mythical cultural figure cutting a path in modern society along ancient and classical paths. I guess what I mean is this: picture an alien trying to learn about human culture, looking around at the different stories. If you show him Pulp Fiction or Fargo or Chungking Express or something, that little alien’s just going to be confused. But if you show him Yojimbo or Casablanca, or Drive, then that alien will understand some very broad, basic shorthand that goes across cultures, but that especially informs this dominant American culture. This movie wears that Western archetype on its sleeve so blatantly that it would make a good candidate for a discussion in a follow-up to Robert Ray’s book about Hollywood cinema 1930-1980, the 1980-2030 version that maybe someone should write someday.
Anyway, the short version is: this movie was popular and remains popular because it’s a classic story, universal in its simplicity, and it’s a story told very very well. This was the first time I’d seen the great Dane’s work, Nicolas Winding Refn, and it spurred me to check out his Pusher Trilogy and a bunch of his others. His followup with star Ryan Gosling, Only God Forgives, wasn’t nearly as commercial nor as classical, and everyone kind of hated it, but I kind of loved it. The movie was pretty ethereal, but like Drive, like everything he does, it looks so damn good, I can’t forget it. The way that Drive looks is a really big part of its appeal, and NWR is a big big reason for this movie doing so well. The casting and the acting of that cast is all completely amazing, starting with Gosling in what is looking to be his most iconic role, and then on to Carey Mulligan who between this and Shame really has a habit of quietly stealing a movie out from under its thunderous leading actor. Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks here are utterly archetypal, in roles that feel like the crystallization of Hollywood tough-guy movies from the 1930’s onwards. This was also the first time that I, and probably most people, had become aware of Oscar Isaac, even if I didn’t know his name until Inside Llewyn Davis. I hope that this film stands the test of time. Five years on, it sure looks that way. And why not, I’ll call it: this is going to be one of the films that we look fondly on as a great example of 21st century filmmaking. If not, I guess I owe you a coke.