In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
We hate like hell to admit it, but professional critics often exist in a sort of bubble, oblivious to how the medium that we cover (and love) is perceived by the rest of the world. Even at film festivals, surrounded by other critics, that can be true. I remember jogging down the Croisette at Cannes one year to make sure I was an hour early for the new Hong Sang-soo picture, expecting a long line… only to find one other person (a friend of mine) standing there. When an arty genre movie like Drive premieres at a festival like Cannes, therefore, we sometimes go a little bit nuts. I left the press screening convinced that I'd seen not just a terrific film but a potential hit, and was flabbergasted when opening-night viewers polled by CinemaScore gave it a dismal C- grade. Even now, when Drive comes up in conversation among friends and family who aren’t cinephiles, the response is uniformly negative, often violently so. Nobody’s quite ready to defend the crazy lady who tried to sue the distributor for false advertising, but they all clearly feel as if they were promised something fairly specific that the movie didn’t even come close to delivering.
Now that a few years have gone by—and now that Nicolas Winding Refn, with Only God Forgives, has reverted to deliberately punishing form—it seems like a good time to look back at one of the scenes in Drive that I found thrilling and try to figure out who was more delusional: the general public, or me? My initial plan was to examine the opening sequence, in which Ryan Gosling’s unnamed Driver pulls off an impressive getaway by utilizing a variety of different strategies, including careful attention to an L.A. Clippers game in progress. Upon reflection, though, I feel like even the haters were probably still with the movie at that early stage. Instead, let’s take a look at an action scene from the middle of the picture, featuring future Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac opposite Gosling. Driver has reluctantly agreed to help Isaac’s oddly named character, Standard, and his cohort, Blanche (Christina Hendricks), rob a pawnshop, even though no pawnshop robbery in cinema history has turned out well. This one doesn't, either.
Rewatching this scene from the point of view of someone expecting a cousin to The Fast And The Furious, the first thing that strikes me—in an oh, duh sort of way—is that we don’t see any of the actual robbery. That’s not an especially original idea, of course. Quentin Tarantino structured all of Reservoir Dogs around it. This scene happens in the present tense, though, not in brief flashbacks, and maybe it seems like intentional nose-thumbing to some people that we remain in the car with Driver, waiting, while the action takes place entirely off screen. (The same thing occurs in the opening sequence, but since we’re still learning who Driver is at that point, the decision to stay with him seems less perverse.) It’s important that we see Driver take note of the Chrysler 300 that ominously parks alongside his Mustang GT, but that doesn’t necessarily require this austere approach—had he wanted to, Winding Refn easily could have crosscut interior and exterior shots, with Driver getting more and more anxious in concert with Standard barking orders at the cashier or whatever. Indeed, Winding Refn makes a point of following Standard and Blanche right to the door, as opposed to staying near the car the whole time. He just remains outside.
None of this really occurred to me until now, though, because on previous viewings I was caught up in the superlative filmmaking. From a purely dramatic standpoint, not following Standard and Blanche into the pawnshop makes perfect sense—what matters here is the tension that Driver experiences during the handful of minutes he’s not in control of the situation, not the mundane details of the robbery. And Winding Refn uses the “dead air,” plus Gosling’s stillness in this role, to maximum advantage. The first two shots after the shop door closes are exquisite: Winding Refn pushes in toward Driver, viewed through the windshield, and sound designer Lon Bender (who has credits going all the way back to Coal Miner’s Daughter) slowly brings up the insistent ticking of Driver’s watch, strapped as usual to the steering wheel, until it’s just barely audible. That sound then becomes dominant when we cut to the reverse angle from inside the car. Gosling betrays very slight concern via a glance down at the watch (Winding Refn chooses not to cut to an insert shot of it), then a glance to his left as he hears the Chrysler pull in. When it parks two spots away, he flexes his left hand slightly, and the crackling sound made by his leather glove, to my mind, is far more nerve-wracking than any generic “put the money in the bag!” bluster would have been.
Admittedly, I’m cheating a bit here, because I’m analyzing one of the movie’s few scenes that includes stunt driving, and the primary complaint people have is that there’s way too little of that. Truly addressing this subject would require looking at Drive as a whole. Revisiting this chase scene through their eyes, though, I can see now why it seemed less than satisfying, even as I enjoyed it all over again. For one thing, it’s really short—less than two minutes, start to finish. For another, it’s basically just some simple high-speed traffic dodging that builds to a single big stunt, which may not even appear especially notable to viewers who are accustomed to watching Vin Diesel drive straight through the nose of a cargo plane, defying numerous laws of physics. Stunt driver Jeremy Fry (as Gosling) yanks the emergency brake, shifts into reverse while the car is still spinning, then guns it backward down the road for a while before yanking the emergency brake again and spinning back the other direction just as the road sharply turns. (Apologies if there’s specific terminology I should be using for some of this stuff. I’m not a gearhead.) The Chrysler can’t react quickly enough to this unexpected maneuver and winds up striking a barrier and sailing into the air, visible through the rear windshield behind a terrified Blanche. (Hendricks’ expression is priceless.)
Certain elements of this quick stunt seem less than plausible. Cars have only one reverse gear, so it’s generally not possible to drive backward as blazingly fast as Driver does here. Also, seems like a Mustang GT should have little trouble outpacing a Chrysler 300 in general, unless the latter were pretty souped up. Still, compared to the typical Hollywood car chase sequence, this is practically a documentary, which is probably the issue. The gulf between the movie Winding Refn made and the movie the CinemaScore audience wanted to see is most plain in the last few seconds of the scene, as the Chrysler flips through the air. That shot through the rear windshield is fairly impressive, but instead of cutting to another angle of heavy-duty automotive carnage, as most directors would, Winding Refn gives us just a brief close-up of the Chrysler hitting the pavement, with only one of its wheels visible in the frame. And then he dissolves straight from that shot to Driver and Blanche holed up in a motel room. There isn’t a triumphant shot of them driving away. The whole sequence feels almost surgical in its precision, which apparently isn’t what most people want from a movie called Drive. And that’s fine. I respect their disappointment. But I can’t share it.