"I am a fetish filmmaker," said Nicolas Winding Refn, director of this week's movie "Drive." "I just make films based on what I like to see, on what arouses me, and not try to analyze them, because if I do, then I can destroy it."
"Drive" certainly feels like a fetish movie, and I mean that in the best possible way. The whole movie is sleek, heightened, and charged with something akin to eroticism, from the inscrutable expression on Ryan Gosling's face to the gleaming surfaces of his car; from the languorous tableaux of nocturnal Los Angeles to the shot of Albert Brook stabbing some hapless gangster in the eye with a fork.
Though Ryan Gosling's stoic visage appears on the poster, the true star of this flick is Refn. The movie's opening sequence shows Gosling's character -- he doesn't have a name in the film aside from monikers like "driver" and "kid" -- plays getaway driver for a pair of nameless thieves. The virtuosity that he displays evading the cops -- hiding under a bridge here, bolting into a parking structure there -- is matched by Refn's virtuosity behind the camera. In an age when actions scenes have devolved into incoherent camerawork strung together by spastic editing over a blaring soundtrack, the economy Refn uses here is remarkable. "Drive" might just be the best-directed movie you're going to see this year.
"Drive" is Refn's eighth film and his first in Hollywood. His previous movies are told with marked style and with a real felicity for a medium. They're also incredibly violent. Whereas other cinematic auteurs of violence, like John Woo and Sam Peckinpah, prefer their action from the barrel of a gun, Refn like to keep his movie violence old school; bludgeoning, stabbing, and gouging are all par for the course. "Drive," which is his least violent flick, lulls into dream state filled with gorgeous photography and a surprisingly effective synth-pop soundtrack, before jarring with the odd head-stomping scene or the aforementioned fork-to-eye episode.
The movie is punctuated with bottom-feeding gangsters, criminal betrayals, and, of course, a bag full of money; all the hallmarks of a film noir. To that end, Refn's references seem pretty clear -- some Walter Hill, some John Carpenter, some Michael Mann, a bit of "Bullitt," and a dash of "Mulholland Drive."
Yet the Danish director also sees "Drive" as fairy tale. In a certain light, this makes sense: the protagonist is as chivalrous and he is laconic. He dedicates his heart and soul to extracting his maiden in distress, a single mother (played by a luminous Carey Mulligan), from the band of gangsters who threaten her. So Refn turned to another movie that spun a fairy tale from one of the uglier sides of Hollywood -- "Pretty Woman." Yes, that the one that stars Julia Roberts.
"'Pretty Woman' is like the Grimm's fairy tales, which was a major structural inspiration to me," Refn told me over the phone earlier this week. "Here was a movie that took some very dark subject matter and was able to make it into an illusion of Cinderella and champagne. 'Drive' very much starts with champagne and then ends very violently, but it also ends very beautifully. All this violence is justified, because it protects the innocence and the purity of love."
Also opening this week: Gus Van Sant's "Restless," which I have already written about here and here. Also, "Happy, Happy," a Norwegian domestic comedy/drama about a city slicker couple who move to that country's frozen hinterland to save their marriage -- only to wind up next to an even more miserable couple. Extramarital affairs, personal revelations, and a surprising Barack Obama cameo ensue. The film was Norway's selection for best foreign-language Oscar. If your idea of a fun moviegoing experience doesn't include watching Ryan Gosling stomp a gangster's head in, this movie might not be for you.
See a clip from 'Drive':