There are two ways of looking at Drive, the recent Ryan Gosling noir. You can consider what happens on the screen—the plot, dialogue, and action, or you can consider what doesn’t happen—the many silences, distances, empty spaces, questions left unanswered, and motives left unclear. Which one you focus on will go a long way in determining how you feel about it.
What happens in Drive is not greatly distinguishable from what happens in countless other crime films, perhaps most directly Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978). The Kid (Gosling) is an inexpressive mechanic moonlighting as a movie stunt driver and, more importantly, a getaway driver. When he’s behind the wheel or in a fistfight, we can see exactly who he is: he’s a master, a man with ice in his veins and savagery in his heart. In every other way, he’s inscrutable, almost totally opaque. When he meets next-door neighbor Irene (Cary Mulligan), they fall easily, almost wordlessly in love, and they—along with Irene’s young son Benicio (Kaden Leos)—soon become inseparable. Then Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), returns from prison and, in standard film noir fashion, the Kid finds himself drawn deep into the criminal underworld he’d previously only skirted.
In other words, if you judge by what’s happening you’re bound to be disappointed, because none of the plot is very original. Neither are the characters. Every one is an echo from another crime movie, an old noir, a thriller on cable at 3 a.m. One reviewer, panning Drive, asked: What kind of character wears a gold satin jacket embroidered on the back with a huge scorpion, like the one the Kid wears? The answer, of course, is a stock character, the kind Steve McQueen or Robert Mitchum used to play. And when the Kid, late in the film, asks mob boss Bernie (Albert Brooks, nicely cast against type), if he’s heard the story of the scorpion and the frog, it’s hard not to remember that that was already an old story when Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin brought it up in 1955. (“Let’s drink to character,” indeed.)
To understand the greatness of Drive you have to consider what’s not happening – its absences, the lulls and silences it creates and sustains. It’s the best, most stylish use of genre since Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005). Within a simple framework, endless variation is possible. But unlike Brick, which retooled noir’s conventions and threw them at us from unexpected directions, Drive’s innovation is in creating silences and spaces that beg to be filled with meaning.
Take, for example, the movie’s violence. To me it felt like a brutal film. In truth, its instances of violence are not only few, but notably brief. Why do they stand out so much? Because every burst of visceral bloodletting has some quiet, almost poetic moment as a counterpoint. Like the scene in the hotel: The Kid has agreed to help Standard rob a pawnshop to get him out of a debt to the mob, but of course it’s gone terribly wrong. Afterward, the Kid and a hapless cohort, Blanche (Christina Hendricks), are attacked very suddenly in a very small hotel room, where they’re holed up with the requisite duffel bag of cash. It’s true – the battle is gruesome, but what gives it weight is the long, long (I didn’t time it, but it had to have been close to a full minute) interlude immediately after the shootout, when a blood-spattered Gosling peers out from the bathroom where he’s just offed the last thug. There is no sound at all; director Nicolas Winding Refn simply holds it. It’s just us and the moment: slow, observant, begging to be filled with some sort of meaning, emotional or otherwise.
These quiet moments in the narrative have their corollary in the way the characters are developed—or, more to the point, aren’t developed. Time and again the script and performers lead us to moments where we expect to learn who they are and why they do what they do. But then everything stops short. Drinking a glass of water in Irene’s kitchen after he first meets her and gives her a lift home, the Kid answers her questions minimally. He doesn’t elaborate about himself and she doesn’t press him for information. It’s not the conversation we expect during the expositional period of a story. There’s a gap. This is a movie that understands how to use negative space, and how negative space creates—or at any rate encourages—meaning.
Drive also works to create space between the story and the viewer. It’s full of distancing artifice. At one point the Kid conceals his identity by wearing the rubber mask he wore stunt-driving in a movie, a facsimile of the face of the fake star of that fake movie within this fake story—layers on layers of pretending until we hardly know what we’re looking at or what we’re supposed to feel.
And there are constant instances of self-commentary. During the opening chase (a masterpiece of restraint, during which almost no actual chasing occurs), a radio plays a sports broadcast so generic we can’t even tell what sport it’s supposed to be—it becomes clear that the play-by-play isn’t about a game at all, but the chase we’re watching. In another scene, the Kid and Benicio sit watching a children’s TV show, and the Kid asks if a shark character is a bad guy. Of course, replies Benicio. He’s a shark. There aren’t any good guy sharks? asks the Kid. No, Benicio replies. Everyone knows sharks are all bad. The Kid isn’t talking about the show, of course. It’s an actor pretending to be a character, saying lines that are questions about that character.
But here, in these spaces, it’s hard not to project meaning. Gosling, as the Kid, is asking: Are all movie characters who are adept at killing other movies characters rotten, evil, irredeemable? Are we so totally defined by what we do that it’s synonymous with who we are? If so, then there’s nothing more to know about the characters than what we see on the screen. There’s no need to know where they came from or how they got the way they are. There’s just the movie, the character, and what he does.
The question for me, I guess, is whether it’s possible, as a viewer, to have a genuine emotional experience amidst all this artifice and emptiness, or whether, more fundamentally, the filmmakers even want us to. I think they do, maybe, and there are moments when feeling comes through. There’s this elevator scene, for example.
It’s the Kid and Irene in an elevator with a goon sent to kill the Kid. There’s a great deal of silence, and the Kid and the goon sneak peeks at each other. It’s tense. Then comes a lull. The Kid reaches back and gently nudges Irene into the corner of the elevator, away from what’s about to happen—not just the violence, but what it will reveal. Then, prolonging the moment, he leans back and kisses her. It’s a long, slow, silent kiss. It seems to last forever. And then the explosion of violence. In 15 seconds the Kid has dispatched the goon, stomping him to death in a mounting frenzy of bloodlust. The elevator reaches the garage and Irene—who knew nothing about why the goon was there—backs out. Her expression says it all: to her, the Kid is a monster. The Kid’s face is flushed and bloated with ebbing rage and fury, his eyes heavy and dull, spittle on his lips and blood sprayed across his jacket. In what’s perhaps a three-second shot with no dialogue, Gosling tells us more about the Kid than we learn in the whole rest of the movie. He conveys fury, shame, regret, compulsion, love, and a kind of helplessness. He looks like an animal caught devouring its prey. He looks captive to his own native traits—and those of every noir anti-hero that came before him—like that scorpion he and Mr. Arkadin like to talk about. He lets us peek behind the nothing to see the something.
At least, that’s what I think I saw while I was busy ignoring what was happening in favor of what wasn’t. Maybe it was just me. Maybe it’s just a movie doing what all movies do, only more honestly. Maybe it’s a savvy filmmaker and a brilliant actor who know that they just make the images; we make the meaning.