Paul Schrader’s classic essay “Notes on Film Noir” (1972) (included in Alain Silver and James Ursini’s excellent Film Noir Reader [Limelight, 1996]) cataloged the dark American crime films of the 1940s and 1950s into three phases. In the “wartime period” (roughly 1941–1946), the reigning style appeared in movies like The Maltese Falcon, with its glossy look, chatty private eye, and stagey contrivances. In phase two (approximately 1945–1949), crime films emerged from the war grittier and more disillusioned, their focus shifting toward street crime, corruption, and police procedurals (Force of Evil, The Naked City). Bogart’s flash and polish gave way to Fred MacMurray’s easy, sleazy amorality in Double Indemnity, a pivotal film which shed the studio look and detective hero in favor of brazen criminality and seething sexuality. And the third phase—Schrader’s pick for the “cream of the film noir period”—is defined by “psychotic action and suicidal impulse,” as in James Cagney’s outrageously brutal leading role in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye or Ralph Meeker’s hunky, thuggish Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly.
Drive, the first US production of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, is deeply indebted to the noir tradition, particularly to that vital third phase. Though the first half of the film keeps everything tense and low-key, it springs into psychotic action during the second half. The main character played by Ryan Gosling is credited as “The Driver,” though he is largely nameless in the film, known only by his white jacket with a scorpion on the back. Crucial to the storyline is the fable about a frog who reluctantly gives a scorpion a ride on his back across a river. The scorpion convinces the frog that stinging his ride would be foolish since they would both drown. The frog relents and is shocked when the scorpion zaps him anyway. The only explanation the scorpion can give is that he did what was in his nature. This fable is partly retold by Gosling near the end of the film, and it functions as a key not only to Drive, but to most of the classic noir films—everything falls apart when our irrepressible, base natures cause us to act out against our better selves.
The heart of this film is a compassionate look at several nontraditional family arrangements. Ryan Gosling’s unnamed character, who carries himself with an odd blend of sheepishness and stoicism, falls in love with his next door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a woman caring for her son while her husband awaits release from prison. In his work life, the Driver is a mechanic, a movie stuntman, a potential racer, and a criminal getaway expert. All of these jobs are managed for him by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a grizzled, tattooed body-shop owner who is as close to a father as anyone for the Driver. Shannon tries to create a stock-car racing team with financial backing from Bernie (Albert Brooks), a low-level racketeer who works with Nino (Ron Perlman), a crime boss who seems to be only one rung above Bernie on the criminal ladder. Both of these gangsters are vicious and not above bloodying their own hands, but there is a sweetness and sorrow in their relations with each other, especially as they discuss their identity as Jewish men who will never be respected by their Italian mob superiors. The criminal group and Irene’s husband have some surprising connections which add wrinkles to the plot, but for much of the film the Driver acts as a surrogate son, husband, or father to the other orphans of the story.
Refn’s previous film, Valhalla Rising (2009), was a trippy, bloody adventure story about a one-eyed Viking who joins medieval Christian warriors sailing off to fight in the Crusades. Their journey is waylaid, and they all end up massacred in a hinterland they presume is hell. The Los Angeles of Drive has something of this hellish quality, and the coincidences that springload the plot as it launches into violent chaos bear traces of the inescapable, fatalistic punishment of classic films noir. In a memorable sequence from Valhalla Rising, the warriors languish aboard a mist-veiled ship on a motionless sea. This sequence, blatantly swiped from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, maximizes the horrors of exhaustion in the absence of God—or perhaps God’s disfavor with men on a vengeance quest in His name. Prayer fails, as does fighting, cursing, and a whole host of attempts to grapple with their Job-like predicament. Drive lifts something of this theme as the various criminal bosses and lackeys blame each other for the collapse of their syndicate.
The despairing, pessimistic tone of noir cinema has often been seen as a direct relative of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. The universes created by movies like Kiss Me Deadly and Double Indemnity seem to lack any inherent meaning. The brutish, loner males and alluring, deadly females who populate these films thrive on the power of their amoral choices. And yet, there often seems to be cosmic retribution as the plot unravels along with the protagonist’s schemes. One of my colleagues in the history department at Whitworth University says that film noir is the most Christian of film genres because no other genre takes as seriously the presence and effects of sin. In Drive as in Valhalla Rising, the sinfulness of the characters is matched only by their despair and loss.
Refn won a Best Director Award for Drive at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and it is not hard to see why given the ways the film calls attention to its directorial vision. It is a stylish, neo-noir mash-up of classic Hollywood, 1980s action movies and 1970s exploitation cinema. The opening sequence is an especially tense getaway through the labyrinth of Los Angeles, all shot in lighting that obscures much of the Driver’s face. Part of what makes its style so compelling is how Refn splashes violence into a slow, meditative, serene context. Valhalla Rising offers this same contrast, but the scarred, Scandinavian barbarian at its center bristles with violence while Gosling’s Driver is calm and precise, wearing a white jacket and cool expression. Refn’s film Bronson (2008) was also full of gory shocker scenes, but their overall effect was less jarring due to the garrulousness of the title character—a bare-knuckle boxer who became England’s most lethal inmate and a vigorous self-promoter. Like many of the post-Tarantino generation of filmmakers working with crime genres, Refn’s film exudes cinephilia and an appetite for gruesome shocks. Where Refn differs from directors like Guy Ritchie (Snatch, RocknRolla) is in his capacity for fluid storytelling and emphasis on characters with emotional depth.
Refn’s finest work may still be his Pusher Trilogy in which he uses his genuine compassion for nasty underworld characters to humanize them. The three films—Pusher (1996), Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands (2004), and Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death (2005)—are set in Copenhagen’s underworld, and in each, the protagonist’s way is troubled by another character’s villainy and/or stupidity (much like Drive). The trilogy as a whole is engrossing because in each successive film, the villain from the previous one becomes the central character. By the end of the third installment, we understand how the motives of even the most depraved characters are actually rich with nuance and complexity.
Though Drive does not stir quite this same level of sympathy for its characters, Refn still manages to imbue his vicious criminals with humanity. The Driver, despite being a tabula rasa, has a kindly melancholy, not only around his love interest but also with Bernie in their final confrontation. Bernie, even as he slices his enemies with razors, displays a weariness with killing and wistfulness for the better life he cannot find. Most intriguingly for the noir genre, the stock femme fatale character seems to be split across two women—Irene, who (inadvertently) lures the Driver into the scheme that will undo him, and Blanche (played by Christina Hendricks), who unleashes the torrent of violence that propels the latter half of the film. In both cases, Refn enlists our sympathies by showing the hopelessness of these women’s situations and their yearning for better lives that they cannot have. Though the City of Angels may be for these characters a living hell, Refn manages to make us care even about the scorpions.
Charles Andrews is Associate Professor of English at Whitworth University.