by Mel Valentin
When we first meet the unnamed anti-hero/protagonist (Ryan Gosling) of Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn's ("Valhalla Rising," "Bronson," "The Pusher Trilogy") lyrical (and ultra-violent) adaptation of James Sallis' 2005 neo-pulp novella, he's quietly (quiet being a key component of Refn's directing style) laying out his personal rules for joining a heist as a wheelman: He doesn't care (or want to know) the nature of the heist, the robbers get his undivided attention for five minutes after the robbery, and he never carries a gun. He wears a scorpion-embroidered, light-gray satin jacket and, when driving, brown leather gloves. For the soft-spoken, laconic Driver With No Name (he is what he does, and, at least initially, nothing else), driving getaway cars at night provide him with one more opportunity to do what he loves best: drive. Driving getaway car also gives Driver something else: The chance to test himself, to test his skills, to test him limits and, inevitably (we're in noir-world after all), to test fate.When he's not driving getaway cars, switching apartments, and/or sleeping, Driver works in an auto shop for Shannon (Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston), a former stunt driver and, like Driver, car lover. Shannon also gets Driver gigs as a stunt driver in local films and, presumably, television shows. Shannon may be the closest thing Driver has to a father figure, mentor, and friend, but he's not above (or, more accurately, below) exploiting Driver's exceptional skills behind the wheel as stunt driver, stunt man, and, more quixotically, as the driver of a stock car. Shannon dreams (and in noir, everyone has a dream, usually an unrealistic one) of gaining or, in his eyes, regaining the status he lost long ago to a string of bad luck (luck also being an essential component of noir) and a violent encounter with a gangster over an unpaid debt that left Shannon crushed, both physically (he needs a leg brace to get around) and mentally (he lives day to day).
"Zen and the Art of Getaway Driving."
Shannon, a classic noir fall guy, makes another in a long series of ill-considered decisions: He brings in Bernie Rose (comedian/writer/director Albert Brooks), a former Hollywood producer-turned-mid-level gangster, to fund his latest business venture. Rose has a business partner of his own, a thuggish, unpolished gangster, Nino (Ron Perlman), who operates out of a shabby, strip mall pizzeria that bears his name. Shannon sees Nino as a minor, not major hindrance to his business relationship with Rose. Rose eventually puts up the 300 Gs necessary to buy a slightly used stock car and, once they repair and upgrade said stock car, Driver will drive and everyone will make shedloads of cash. Except they don't, of course.
Driver’s motives may be non-pecuniary, but they're just as self-interested: he makes an ill-fated decision of his own: He decides to help Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), a small-time criminal just out on parole, get out from under an onerous debt owed a gangster. Gabriel also happens to be married to Driver's next-door neighbor and potential romantic interest, Irene (Carey Mulligan). Irene and Gabriel also have a son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), who, desperate for a father figure, quietly accepted, even encouraged, Driver's presence in his mother's life. Not surprisingly, Benicio wants the safety, security, and belonging that a father figure can provide and, before Gabriel's return, something Driver offers just as quietly.
Driver and Gabriel may be rivals for Irene and Benicio's affections, but they’re not dissimilar. They're not "bad men" per se, just men who make bad, even tragic, decisions. Like Shannon and, to a lesser extent, Rose, they want to upgrade their lives, but, in the case of Gabriel, his past, and, in the case of Driver, his present, can't and, since we’re in noir-world, they don't. While Gabriel has a past he can’t escape, he also has a backstory (a wife, son, family, friends, and, of course, a criminal record). Driver doesn’t have one. We never learn anything about his upbringing, his family (if any), his past (crimes and/or misdemeanors), or how and why he learned so much about repairing and driving cars. The Driver simply is, sui generis, created, imagined, and brought into being by genre conventions, but stripped of the backstory that makes a character sympathetic and, therefore, root-worthy.
With able assists from cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and editor Matthew Newman, Refn applies a similar, related minimalism to his filmmaking style. Refn’s visual style is stripped-down, straightforward, and unobtrusive. It's devoid of over-emphatic, rhetorically empty flourishes or attention-grabbing, overly distracting camera moves that signal directorial self-indulgence and egotism. It’s a visual style that owes much to late ‘70s, early to mid ‘80s urban crime films, specifically the films of Walter Hill (The Driver), Michael Mann (Manhunter, Thief), William Friedkin (To Live and Die in L.A.), and, a decade earlier, Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï), all come to mind, but minus the self-conscious obviousness typical of, for example, anything and everything in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre.Refn takes his admittedly self-conscious homage a step further by integrating frequent Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez’s Brian Eno-inspired ethereal, ambient soundscapes with ‘80s-influenced synth-pop tracks, e.g., Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx’s “Nightfall,” Desire’s “Under Your Spell,” College’s “A Real Hero” (featuring Electric Youth), Riz Ortolani’s Oh My Love (Feat. Katyna Ranieri), and the Chromatics “Tick of the Clock.” The tracks speak to and for the characters (who can’t speak for themselves).
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originally posted: 09/15/11 16:17:28