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Drive (2011) – 94/100

Drive is an unbelievable film that though pushed as mainstream media, is a sneakily subversive film. I think that the mass appeal of the film’s story is a misunderstanding, mediated in part by uneven cutting of the film, but mostly due to audiences superimposing the world’s most popular tale over a film that criticizes that very structure. Yet regardless of content, cinematic style is a key factor in this movie’s success.

I’ve heard comparisons to Ryan Goslings character as a “white knight” similar to the nameless hero that Clint Eastwood plays in Spaghetti Westerns, but this is not the case. Ryan Gosling is at least superficially a strong “superman” type character, but what stops the film from becoming instantly kitsch is the lack of any morality. Even before the film’s action starts to develop, Gosling is portrayed as a void and distant person, to such an extent that his few words and strange behavior start to look like symptoms of some social disorder rather than just confidence and self-sufficiency. At a point in the film, Gosling is watching a cartoon with his neighbor’s kid, and asks if a shark is a “bad guy” while the child responds “of course.” This kind of an insert into the film is for me a clue away from the “superman sets things right” impression that many seem to have gotten from the picture.

Another interesting difference between typical “rightful revenge” type movies and this one is the fragility of the world. Injuries that don’t go away, and the incredible ease of hurting and killing people in the film vilainize violence, and separate the human beings that chose to be violent from the rest of the world. The fact that Gosling doesn’t approach a single situation with a firearm, rather a melee weapon, makes each of his kills a display of heightened brutality to ravage recklessly rather than a superior skill used to subdue the sinister.

The delicate condition of the world makes strength peripheral to killing, so is there anything really “superman” about Gosling? An instant response would be his unbeatable driving, but, I was very surprised at how little driving there was in this film. The most exciting car chase showcased Gosling’s lack of fear for danger to a greater extent than his skill. The camera movement, as well as the shrieks of a woman, showed the chase as a chaotic situation that couldn’t affect Gosling, and to me seemed an ode to his lack of connection the the world.

Yet, the film is not even in presenting Gosling. There is a scene where he argues with his boss and seems just like a normal person protecting his interests. Gosling gets frustrated in this scene, and actually has an involved back and forth dialogue. The rest of the film has Gosling sporting an awkward slight smile and scarcely tossing out hollow lines into conversations.

The film shows Gosling as a distant character taken advantage of. His boss tells others of how he doesn’t give Gosling fair pay for his work, and as an employee his talents seem to be milked to the fullest extent in many fields. The violent acts Gosling commits are all reactionary or goal driven in an impersonal way, and are not driven by revenge; he doesn’t kill to get even, but ultimately kills to protect his neighbor and himself. Goslings selflessness is not a trait of nobility, it is shown as an alien quality that exposes him to situations where he must do wrong. People try to make him the victim, but he refuses.

But that’s all content, and though it seems that the message of the film seems quite malleable, the form of it is the real draw. Camera placement and lighting are mastered in Drive. A very dirty Los Angeles River is beautified as a spot to spend an afternoon with your date, sweat drips down to the camera as Gosling stands over a victim to accentuate nerves and fright in a state of apparent power, shadows convey a murder to show how action and movements are only a silhouette of a character. Image choice and manipulation are incredibly powerful storytellers in this film, and I’m sure there’s plenty of photographic choices with a significance that I missed on my first watch-through. Hopefully I’ll glean more the second time round, this is a film I would definitely re-watch, and I hope even the squeamish will see Drive, because it’s thick with awesome-ness.

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