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Reason, madness and DRIVE: Nicholas Winding Refn’s damaged macho men

Reason, madness and DRIVE: Nicholas Winding Refn's damaged macho men

EDITOR’S NOTE: Warning: this piece contains spoilers for Drive. Read at your own risk.

By Louis Godfrey
Press Play Contributor

The silver Chevy Impala sits on the other side of a red stoplight from a police cruiser at a downtown Los Angeles intersection. The Driver is icy and locked in, even as he hears over a police scanner that the cruiser has made him as the getaway car in an armed robbery. The light turns green, and the Driver punches the gas. The cruiser flips a u-turn and hits its siren. Looking through the front windshield, we can see the Impala is picking up speed as it winds in and out of traffic. Cut to the back windshield, we can see the cruiser in pursuit. Cut to the driver, whose expression barely registers the action. The pattern repeats: front of the car, back of the car, back to the driver, who is as mechanical as the vehicle he is piloting. The Impala makes a hard right, which the cruiser is unable to follow, and disappears into a crowded Staples Center parking lot.

That sequence comes near the beginning of Drive, the new film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, and it’s basic, unusual rhythm is repeated, stretched, and contracted in subsequent chase scenes. Unusual in that, unlike the classic car duel in Peter Yates’s Bullitt (which pivots on establishing shots, other exterior to the car or through a windshield), the chases in Drive pivot on tight close-ups of the unshaken visage of the nameless driver, played by Ryan Gosling. The Driver is unambiguously the visual center of the film, with the camera constantly working to accommodate him. Often shot standing solitarily in the background, apart from groupings of other characters in discussion, the Driver is always sharply in focus. It is only when the Driver is squarely in the frame, and particularly when the film turns brutal and bloody, that the focal length shortens, and the world blurs around him, aligning us squarely with his subjectivity.

Adapted by Hossein Amini from James Sallis’s hard-boiled novel, Drive is a crime story firmly rooted in genre: the Driver, who specializes in getaway jobs, gets roped into a heist to save the husband of his next-door neighbor (Carey Mulligan), but runs afoul of two gangsters (Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman). Throughout there are traces of Los Angeles-specific noir (To Live and Die in LA and Chinatown), the existential heist and hitman films of Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samourai), Lee Marvin’s vengeance-seeking anti-hero in John Boorman’s Point Blank, and the professionally cool persona of Steve McQueen (The Getaway, the aforementioned Bullitt), who continues to personify the relationship between manliness and horsepower. But Drive is not an imitation or pastiche; from those previous films it extracts not merely a sensibility, but elements of character, an archetype. The Driver is the white knight in a black fedora, resolute with clarity of purpose, and above all autonomous and filled with masculine potential.

Drive is also an incredibly unnerving film in a way that its genre predecessors are typically not. When the first act of violence comes, a gunshot deep into the film, the sound slams like a punch to the chest. Shotgun blasts to the face, a shower rod jammed in a throat, a foot crushing a skull as if it were a Styrofoam cup – there is a palpable fleshiness to the action and the resulting viscera similar to that of Winding Refn’s earlier films, including the Pusher trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising. Those movies also center on images of masculine archetypes – street-level drug dealers, a pathologically violent prisoner, and crusading Vikings – but the images are mutilated, cleaved of their symbolic values, exposing a raw physicality that turns the male body into an arena of madness.

It is the traditional aim of cinema to preserve its diegetic and narrative reality by perpetuating the illusion of a cohesive alignment between gaze of the viewer and the gaze of the camera. The basic elements of film grammar – the subjective point-of-view shot, the reversal, the objective establishing shot – work in concert with each other to enunciate what has preceded them. In Lacanian psychoanalytic terms, the succession of shots ‘sutures’ together the viewer and the camera, establishing an imaginary cohesion between the two gazes that becomes something of an Ouroboros, doubling back on itself. While no film can perfectly suture the gazes, many do well enough to preserve the external appearance of internal logic. In turn, that logic must placate broader ideological biases in the culture, such as the equating of the emotional with the feminine and the rational with the masculine.

Violence complicates the formulation though. Traumatic imagery necessarily distances the viewer from the on-screen reality. “The result of witnessing some excessively cruel event, from intense sexual activity, to physical torture,” writes Slavoj Zizek in The Fright of Real Tears, “ is that, when, afterwards, we return to our ‘normal’ reality, we cannot conceive of both domains as belonging to the same reality.” Horrors captured by the camera can not be reconciled with the viewer’s reality, so they are ‘derealized,’ separated out into an imaginary reality of their own. But within that imaginary reality, those acts of violence are still sutured in that the gaze of the camera normalizes them. This is particularly true in crime films, whose protagonists are more often than not signifiers of masculine archetypes, grounded in invented social contexts, fraternal codes, and grand guiding principles. From Michael Corleone (The Godfather), to Henry Hill (Goodfellas), to Batman (The Dark Knight), immoral, nihilistic acts are granted the province of reason.

Winding Refn is a great cinematic technician, and he uses the tools of his craft to not necessarily undo the suture, but to pull on it, make its stitching and scar tissue visible, and letting the infection leak out of it. There are common technical elements throughout his work, including irregular editing patterns, jarring sound designs, and highly expressionistic uses of color (especially red, which often bathes the screen, enveloping the scene). But Winding Refn also tailors the visuals of each film to its subject, finding ways to disrupt the normative gaze of the camera and not only to strip the masculine archetype of the presumption of reason, but to expose the archetype as madness itself. The Pusher films are all handheld camera, which swerves through dingy cafes with its characters, runs with them from the police, and pushes in tightly on their face, capturing every scab, tattoo, trace of drug residue, and splash of blood. Bronson is a mangy mashup of vaudeville, dank prison cells, art-deco mental institutions, documentary footage, music videos, and tacky living rooms. And Valhalla Rising draws its bleak muddiness and gothic dread as much from Northern European masters such as Hieronymous Bosch and Matthias Gruenwald as it does the album art of Scandinavian black metal records.

Compared with those excesses, Drive is amazingly Spartan and lean, the pacing as deliberate and laconic as its central character. We are slowed down to the Driver’s subjectivity, almost allowing us to feel the shape of a bullet as he fumbles it in his fingers. The world is lit to fit his image, unnaturally, with shadows running much deeper than they should. But edges are not hard, as they are in classic noir. Rather the color gradations are subtle and elongated, almost as if they were watercolor illustrations from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The shadows caress the Driver’s face, and at times almost darken out the wells of his eyes completely. It’s as if he were wearing black eye shadow, making the brilliant blue of Gosling’s irises pop out as silver, like James Cagney’s did in The Public Enemy.

Cagney’s portrayal of Cody Jarett in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat is one of the classic images of male madness in cinema – erratic, feminized, and ultimately easily isolated from the world of reason. It is a vision of madness as a withdrawal from the world, possibly innate (as in White Heat), possibly ‘contagious’ (as in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor), but one that is finite, definable, and most importantly, containable. It is also utterly false. Madness and reason, while not arbitrary, are certainly not pure categories. Madness and reason can only exist in relationship to one another, as part of a symbolic order placed on the human psyche, born of our desire to structure our reality in such a way that separates actions from the chaos of the world around us.

But symbolic orders are constantly under pressure from the physical, the real, and so they are constantly in a state of flux, forcing the terms to redefine themselves in relationship to one another. In the case of reason and madness, reason establishes its own parameters by declaring what it is, while madness pushes and pulls against those parameters, daring reason to define it by what it is not. In Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s hallucinatory Santa Sangre (which Winding Refn has acknowledged as a major influence), the man-child Fenix’s arms and hands are appropriated by his mother as tools for murder. Fenix’s body is degraded, physically marked with red press-on nails, and reduced to a grotesque womb this is continuously giving birth to his own trauma and extreme sexual repression. It is madness as a state of change, of becoming.

Winding Refn’s male bodies are also grotesque bodies. They are scared and tattooed, wearing evidence of stress, and pain, and drug use on their faces. Tony’s emotional damage is in the contusions across his face, clashing with the garish tattoo on the back of his neck that reads ‘Respect’ (Pusher II), and Milo’s brow and cheeks hang heavy with age, flabby and exhausted even while he feeds a man’s small intestine into a garbage disposal (Pusher III). The former slave One Eye (Valhalla Rising) is mute, unable to communicate the nightmarish visions he sees except through the cicatrix over his left ocular cavity, and through the body paint applied to his back and chest before he is forced to fight to the death with his bare hands. Mickey Peterson (Bronson) forces a prison guard – who he has taken hostage in his cell, for no other reason than that he could – to apply body paint to his ridiculously large muscles and uncircumcised member before inviting in the riot squad for a brawl (seeming to relish the resulting internal bleeding as much as the fight itself). These bodies are grotesque in that they are brought low, rendered human through proof of their frailty. The marks inflicted upon them the evidence of the tumult between reason and madness, a physical expression of the metaphysical silence between the two Foucault calls “the broken dialogue.”

The Driver is a different, more radical kind of grotesque figure, a body marked by what is absent. All of the supporting characters in Drive wear their biographies on their faces: Bryan Cranston’s Shannon (the Driver’s mentor and fixer) is too haggard to pretend he has dignity, while Carey Mulligan’s Irene has dimples and large tear ducts that show years of forced smiles and hidden sobbing. Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) looks like he never slept a night in prison, and Nino’s (Ron Perlman) massive chin gives the look of a man who has been jawing his whole life. But The Driver has no signs of a past on his face, no trace of troubled thoughts or aspirations. When the shadows wrap around Gosling’s face, they find no crevices to hide in, only an unnatural smoothness.

He is an image, and an image cannot contain internal psychology or philosophy, it can only reflect concepts. Winding Refn short-circuits the illusion often by actually reflecting the image of the Driver – in windows, in rearview and kitchen mirrors – back on itself, creating a sort of feedback loop and literalizing Zizek’s concept of the interface in the same way that Orson Welles did with funhouse hall of mirrors in The Lady From Shanghi. Ultimately the Driver’s identity is inextricable from his silver jacket with a golden scorpion on the back (itself lifted from Kenneth Anger’s experimental film Scorpio Rising), just as his hands and leather gloves are one and the same.

Images can also be masks though, and the image of the Driver does mask something physical, something real, which becomes apparent during scenes of violence. When the Driver holds a hammer over a man’s head, we can see veins begin to pop out of his forehead. When he stomps in a man’s face, we can see his lungs heave and sweat fly from his brow. These scenes are the first evidence that the Driver pumps blood or respires, that there is something beneath trying to come out. The film makes a sick joke when, hoping to disguise himself, the Driver dons a rubber mask to hide his face: he wears a mask to cover the mask that can not totally conceal him.

It is shocking though how quickly the image of the Driver regains its composure after the killing is done, even as evidence of it lingers on his face and clothes. In this way the Driver finds a doppel in Albert Brooks’s Bernie Rose. Bernie is as deliberate as the Driver, his face is as smooth (Brooks appears to have shaved his eyebrows for the role), and he explodes into violence before retreating into practiced good humor, folding back cleanly into place like the ornate razor blade he uses to slash another character’s wrist. But Bernie’s face is hallowed, as if something once there has been carved out. For the Driver, there is nothing yet there.

After the final showdown with Bernie, the Driver sits in his car, badly wounded. The camera holds his eyes, and for a moment it seems certain that he will die. It would be the ultimate disintegration of the image. But the Driver pulls himself back to life, and drives on. His body has been exposed as grotesque, tying it into the world, showing it to be open and incomplete. Without autonomy all he has left is his potential. As the credits role, the soundtrack revs up – a robotic electro-pop song with the lyrics, “You have proved to be a real human being, and a real hero.” Those lines are soaked with irony. He has not proved to be those things. He is rather proving to be grotesque, in flux, in a perpetual state of becoming that is no different from madness.

Louis Godfrey currently lives in Chapel Hill, NC. He is originally from Salt Lake City, UT, where he spent five years reporting on politics and court cases, before turning to writing on film. He also likes cats.

To read Ian Grey’s negative review of Drive, click here.

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