william steig drawing

October 5, 2011
Kartina Richardson



I am an extremely quiet person, and since quiet constitutions are often regarded with suspicion, I appreciate films with extremely quiet heroes.

The quiet is what I admired most about Drive, at first. There is restraint in dialogue, and stillness in composition. Even Ryan Gosling’s facial features, unusually petite, restrain themselves from reaching a size better fitting the large plane of his face (it takes one big face to know another).

And out of Gosling’s very little mouth comes a very little voice, that says… very little. This muted calm, despite bursts of gory violence, is Drive’s greatest strength. Director Nicolas Winding Refn creates a persistant monotone mood consistent with lifetime long depression or certain drugs, and in this sleepy way it felt very similar to  Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. But in its characters’ outward emotional restraint and languid physicality it also reminded me of Bresson. This isn’t too surprising as American Gigolo’s influence is clear from the beginning:

and Paul Schrader is a great Bresson admirer, Gigolo being a remake of sorts of Bresson’s Pickpocket, which also shares interesting similarities with Drive:

“The style of this film is not that of a thriller. Using image and sound the filmmaker strives to express the nightmare of a young man who’s weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him. However, this adventure and the strange path it takes, brings together two souls that may otherwise never have met.”

But Drive doesn’t approach either of these films unfortunately, nor would I liken it to Taxi Driver, the other movie frequently referenced in discussion of the film. If we must compare it to an eighties movie, and Drive insists that we do, I find it to be most similar to Adrian Lyne’s Nine and a Half Weeks. Not in terms of story, though Mickey Rourke too is a sexy, small voiced, mystery man, but rather in unrealized potential: They are both visually satisfying films whose quiet characters suggest complexity but are in fact emotionally simple. The first twenty minutes of both films provoke an excitement that each following second slowly dampens.

An exercise in restraint and the creation of an unusual aesthetic is interesting, but our curiosity goes a short distance if there is no humor, emotional complexity or at least an interesting intellectual idea posited behind it. For example, Drive’s soundtrack enhances its style perfectly. It is echo-y, electronic, and eighties influenced, but there are many moments when the music dilutes the power of the scene.

When Irene (Cary Mulligan) and Gosling suddenly realize their affection for each other, music plays over alternating shots of Irene at her husband’s coming home party, and Gosling paused in work, alone in his empty apartment.

The music heightens the style, but in doing so simplifies the emotion, believing that this one dimensionality is somehow powerful or refreshing in its over simplification. It is not.

When a mainstream film appears to have formal ideas, or takes steps towards something different, it’s extremely exciting. It arouses. But so welcomed is this rare exhilaration that we risk being blind to the film’s secret mediocrity. Drive is interesting. At times it is good, even very good, but unfortunately never great, a fact mourned by all those who have qualms with the film, for it seems no one takes joy in pointing out Drive’s faults.

Despite my criticism, the urge to champion the film remains, and I’m afraid this review is conflicted, for though Drive’s aesthetic is what I criticize, it is also the reason I support it.

There aren’t boatloads of Hollywood action movies with such wide releases that give the same priority to visuals in this particular way. In mainstream cinema, great characters, though also rare, are more easily found than truly dynamic images or attention payed to a precise, cohesive style. It’s important that audiences who might not have interest in, or access to, smaller movies (the audience that probably saw Drive the first weekend), have the chance to see what can be done in a film, not just in an “artsy” film that’s already been compartmentalized as inaccessible, but one full of Hollywood stars. Though Drive is not a great film, it may be a stepping stone. Dare I say, Drive is the gateway drug of movies.

Everyone involved in film in one way or another can recall the one that stirred them to action. Even if you knew everything from Philco Playhouse to Dreyer’s mother’s boyfriend’s short films, chances are it was a contemporary movie that really sparked you to do more than watch, for nothing tops the energy of newness, the realization that the creation of art is not all in the past. Thanks to my parents, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by great movies, still, it was the semi-unspectacular American Beauty that cinched the deal. This shot in particular:

I was suddenly aware of the lighting. And the shot composition. And the music. It was different. After years and years of watching greater films, it was this one that began it all. I decided I would make movies one way or another.

Soon after seeing American Beauty, I had a doctor’s appointment. As she prepared an EKG I had insisted on for imaginary heart palpitations, the nurse asked me what I wanted to do. At that time I wanted to be a DP.

Nurse: So what do you want to do?

Fourteen year old me (see above): Cinematography

Nurse: Oh! What made you decide that?

Me (trying to give shortest possible answer): Uh, some movies look better than others…

Nurse: Really? That’s so smart! (to another nurse) Did you hear that? She said she realized that some movies look better than others!

I wasn’t sure if she was making fun of me or not (no kidding genius some movies look better than others), and I still don’t know, but I think that sums it up. Some movies look better than others and those movies, though unable to move us in greater ways, still play an important role. They are simple and accessible with enough hints at an artistic sensibility to energize… for a moment.

I think Drive will most satisfy teenagers who are discovering and experimenting with the power of aesthetic and style, but who, as they grow older, will abandon it for films revealing greater truths.


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  1. Exactly.

  2. I too, found a certain fascination with the movie Drive. You can find my remarks about it on my Facebook page. I found myself comparing this movie to Bullitt (1968) starring Steve McQueen and The Driver (1978) starring Ryan O’Neal. The Mustang car chase scene in Bullitt is regarded by many as the best ever put on film. And I feel that O’Neal’s performance as a get away driver in The Driver is much better than Ryan Gosling’s portrayal in Drive. Also, I feel that the violence and profanity levels in Drive were way over the top. But you are right about the production values in Drive. It has a certain haunting quality and the final scene leaves you wondering. I recommend Drive only for teenagers over the age of 17. Needless to say, this is not a date film unless as a date among law enforcement couples. As a final comment, I would suggest you see all three of the films I have mentioned and make your own comparisons.

  3. Jim Stimpfle

    Quiet! I said quiet! I’m watching! Don’t move so fast. Oh, I got it!
    Damn! That moment in the elevator is a story… Ohhhh god….
    Who wrote this… Powerful sad, but I left the theater with more than
    When I sat down lights out…

  4. Christopher Harn

    I liked that it took the nameless wanderer paradigm and made it more intimate.

  5. To you, “no kidding genius some movies look better than others,” but it’s kind of like acting: not everyone notices. People can’t always point out what it is that stirs their emotions in a film, whether it’s lighting or composition or the story… but they go with it. I think you need some sort of training or art background to be able to say, “…here’s why.”

    The first time I ever noticed bad acting was in Ever After, upon the second watching. The first time, I loved the film. The second time, I noticed the acting.

  6. I think it’s funny how you qualify yourself, at the end of your article, as someone who has good taste. How can you tell if you have good taste? Taste is subjective.

    The two arguments you make are: the characters are too simple, and the music sometimes detracts from the film. That is your opinion. I actually found the music and simplicity absolutely refreshing. You say it isn’t? Why?

    Next you say the film is good, but not great. Why? That is another subjective argument.

    This post seems to not be a review, but a masturbatory exercise in how you can relate certain aspects of Drive to other films. Congratulations, you noticed similarities. That’s not very hard to do. Defending your opinion is what is hard in writing.

    So, why do you think the simplicity of the characters and emotions was a bad choice in this film? Why do you think the music diluted the power of the scenes? Why do you think it is has been “compartmentalized to be inaccessible?” Why must every film have some pseudo-intellectual message or humor to be great? I don’t think Drive was ever trying to be anything but visceral.

    I thought the movie was amazing. I don’t know if you have ever been in a car accident, but I have and there were a few times during the this movie where it gave me the same kind of armrest-gripping adrenaline burst. The “slow” parts feel like the equivalent of being in a daze after you have crashed going 50 mph. You are just sitting there stunned. You are almost seeing life in a different way. Then, after you have escaped death, you are a little more contemplative on life and you appreciate every.. little.. micro-emotion.. that you feel. Especially, when you fall in love.

    I think Refn is a master of conjuring the visceral and I can’t wait to see his next film.

    • @Matt Shaw:

      …Are you kidding? *All* film reviews are subjective. You’re talking about this post like it’s a scientific paper with evidence that needs to be presented. And if you need proof to kartina’s “good taste” just read all of her other posts. Her “good taste” as you or knowledge of film is damn solid.

      (And for the record, I loved Drive)

  7. Crass!

  8. Sort of.

    I found that there was some complexity behind Gosling’s character, especially regarding the ugly violence hidden under the beautiful outside skin. Just compare his face from when he’s kissing Carey Mulligan in the elevator to after he stomps the guys face in. He’s got sweat all over and that clear and calm facial expression is completely gone.

    But I totally agree that it is a gateway drug of movies. You say that for most people their gateway movie is a contemporary one, and that’s probably true but I seem to be an exception. In Seattle we have a great theater called the Cinerama and they show old 70mm movies every once in a while. When I was about 16 years old (I’m 21 now) I was a huge sci fi nerd, and I had heard of a movie called “2001: A Space Odyssey” because it was commonly described as one of the great science fiction movies of all time. They were showing it in 70mm at Cinerama one summer and I went to go see it. I left the theater confused, but also mesmerized. I had no idea what I saw, but I loved it. That started a questioning of linear storytelling and an admiration of the power of images over the power of the written word. And now I’m watching movies by people like Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

  9. Loved it. Found the pace and visual style to be intoxicating. I was reminded of David Lynch. I appreciated a different take on story that has been told many times before. I also saw it as a visceral exercise in cinema. The tension built steadily and the payoff was worth the wait. Looking forward to a 2nd viewing.

  10. I really need to see this film. I love quiet heroes too. Thank you again for another insightful film write-up.

    Jesue V

  11. Salvo Triest.

    When I was a teenager, long before I had ever imagined I’d be into novels, my way of getting my narrative fix was through films and films alone.Films were immediate, visceral, and most importantly, watching one usually only took little more than two hours of my life, tops. Now that I’m older, 24, I find that the written word, is more engaging than the glow of images projected onto a screen because verbal language, in the hands of a truly masterful writer, can allow one to delve far deeper into the human mind than cinema, at least at this point, can. However, when it comes to which is more powerful, the written word or the projected image, I’m going to have to go with the latter every time.

    The funny thing is, this has little if anything to do with the strengths and weakness of the cinematic medium versus the literary, but everything to do with one simple fact; images, because of their concrete likeness to reality, make it easier for the human brain to react as though it were, in fact, experiencing the alternate reality that the image in question depicts. Novels, due to the completely intangible material they’re constructed of (these being words), by themselves, lack the parralel resonance to present-time reality which is one of the staying powers of film. They can, indeed, move one to tears (the beginning of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto), make an outsider in real life feel as though they’ve known nothing but an intricate social life their entire lives (Bolano’s The Savage Detectives), evoke genuine laughter at the most inane of jokes ( Perotta’s The Abstinence Teacher), but when it comes time for the novelist to use words to evoke ACTION as though it were happening in real time, in real motion, just like on a silver screen… That’s where the medium falls short (the end scene of Patchett’s Bel Canto).

    Words can be used to descrbe all they want, and they can actually do that when they’re does exist a machine called a projector that captures situations that never happened and presents them to the masses as events that physically occured outside of reality, but, technically speaking, in real life, what is the point?

    It goes like this; film best captures experience, and novels best capture the internalization of that experience. Sure the evocativeness of film can sometimes blind one to the ideas behind the images, and the coziness of written language can sometimes numb one to the harsh realites that inspired many of the great novels, but that’s just how it goes. Words engage and films move; equal powers, different powers.

    And besides, just as there are gateway movies, there are, too, gateway novels. Mine was Little Children by Tom Perotta.


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