A Will and a Cause

Drive (2011) (Spoilers)

“I don’t carry a gun… I drive.”

The first scenes in Drive set up what sounds like a great premise for a film: an expert driver who wants no involvement in the violent business of the criminal world he occupies. It’s no accident that his description of his operating arrangements forms the spine of the movie’s trailer: it’s a high-concept idea that suggests a variety of exciting directions.

Beyond a light callback in a later sequence, Drive doesn’t become the film it announces. Nor does it pursue two other conflicts it sets up and suggests in its early going: a love triangle between its main character, a beautiful woman and her just-out-of-prison husband; or an unstable business partnership between a young hotshot, his on-the-ropes trainer and a menacing financier.

Drive coheres the exploration of these many courses and the different story arcs they suggest within one operating mode, of gorgeous, stylized cinematography and 80s-infused edge. (Reviewers have had many different takes on the film, but the film’s status as “cool” seems beyond debate.) And the director’s use of cinema’s sensory appeal has a mesmerizing effect that makes the film’s shuffling feel anything but meandering.

The film eventually heads somewhere, however, and where it goes retains that style while discarding the identities and structures it has announced or heavily suggested. And the settling into the story that will guide it to its finish occurs with a different, less trailer-friendly announcement: a shotgun blast that takes off the head of the most beautiful person in the movie.

This moment, and more importantly the viscous gore that accompanies it, has become a bifurcating signpost for many reviewers, the point at which a “cool” movie becomes something decidedly less tasteful. And no doubt, the particulars of blood and mayhem that carry forth from that point onward aren’t what you expect walking into the theater. The introduction of this kind of violence changes how one must look at the film, even as its most appealing elements (unfailing performances and its aforementioned style) proceed on as if the gore is one more element to render as vividly as possible.

Yet the question that gets disguised by excessive focus on the way in which a film stages violence is its choice to depict violence in the first place. It’s telling that no one much complains about gore or the depiction of violence in films that are about violence. Having decided to make that subject their centerpiece, these films, through their ethical labors, make the amount of blood oozing from a wound a relatively insignificant issue.

For other movies where violence isn’t really the key subject matter—and for all that Drive chooses to walk the path of a violent movie in its second incarnation, it’s a stretch to believe violence is the subject of the film—what matters are the ethical frame and moral universe in which that violence takes place. The film’s relationship to the violence it depicts, and the context within its world for that violence, provide the best guide to whether a film is deploying violence in responsible ways. And it’s clear that any film that indulges in violence in a world populated by real people must reckon with the things it does to its characters, and not engage in that violence without any consideration of its actions.

The first point in Drive‘s favor, looked at from this angle, is the deliberate way in which the main character’s relationship to violence progresses.

The onset of gore can obscure how carefully the film brings us to that point. The first scene has the character declaring that he will abstain from any direct interaction with weapons, and whatever goes on in the building the two men walk into is sight unseen. The main character next encounters the direct aftermath of violence, after the two men rough up Standard; then he directly witnesses Standard’s death by gunshot. And so it goes, a careful ramping, from the immediate self-defense of the hotel ambush, to the preemptive, non-deadly assault on Cook, to the brutal defense of himself and Irene in the elevator, to the premeditated murder of Nino.

This progression is brutal and controlled, and the way it unfurls, the slow uncoiling of the main character’s capacities and their bloody results, proceeds with such linear purpose that the film’s earlier play with other high concepts and story directions may well have been feints or manipulations. From another view, they were where we were heading all along, not a direction taken up but a menace lurking in plain sight all along. After all, while the main character has no suggestion of a violent quality to him in the early going, there’s that scene in the diner. When he says (and makes clear) that he’ll kick the teeth in of the man who unwisely chooses to bring up his past exploits, it’s an unsettling moment, both a reminder that we don’t know much about what this man is capable of and a reason to reevaluate what we might expect of him. And that early suggestion works well within the film’s move from the experience of violence to its deployment.

Drive nicely complements this ever-closer relationship to violence with the path of Albert Brooks’ character, who occupies much more screen time in the second half, and spends that time stabbing the hell out of people. The renowned comic actor dealing out mayhem mirrors in miniature the film’s own unexpectedly brutal heel turn, but it’s also a key sign that the main character’s actions are taking place across a changing backdrop, where he himself hasn’t so much become more violent, or entered a more violent world, so much as the world itself has tilted slightly on its axis.

For a film that’s eager to guide you along in its early going, then, the film’s second half becomes much more dependent on the lens in which you wish to view it. The film may be a continuation, a slow rising up of elements that were buried and are let out to wreak havoc. The film may instead depend on being the very opposite, a binary flip to a a very different calculus for right and wrong. Or it may be the introduction of gore as an operatic element for a film already obsessed with high style, an immoral pursuit of ever higher levels of sensation.

Under any view, however, Drive is neither careless nor unaware. And that’s why I think that the best look at the heart of the film isn’t its trailer-friendly opening or the shock of a shotgun blast at its rough midway point. I think it’s the elevator scene: the one overtly romantic moment in the film, the one kiss among a great many dead bodies, the compression of love and violence and death, the great cinematic vocabulary, into one small space. Shielding Irene afterward, the main character kills the man sent to hurt them a few times over, kicking until he’s passed through skin, cracked bone, made a skull flat. That haunting scene makes clear that the main character is violent no matter what’s in his hands. It marks the fiery end to a very strange romance. And it shows that whatever we thought about power within the film hasn’t contended with what the lead can truly do.

It’s an absolutely brutal rejection of any and all options and identities that Drive has accumulated up until that point, in other words. And what you have left in that quiet, aftermath, after the film’s most shaking sensory overload, is the the reaction of the film’s most sympathetic character—one of the most immediately likable characters in recent years. She holds a wordless stare—empathetic, overwhelmed, and horrified in equal measure. Then the door closes.

That separation of the character with a keen moral sense from the main character is all the more reason not to be convinced that Drive really rises to the ethical level of what it unleashes. Yet even amid what might be its own self-condemnation, the film remains unerringly beautiful, and for all the cringe and flinch-inducing character of its gore, you’re not going to avert your eyes. Drive seems to understand that “I am beautiful” and “I am wrong” aren’t mutually exclusive, and in its confidence in reaching that very unsettling conclusion it may well redeem itself by having something quite thoughtful to say. Or let’s hope—because believing that what’s left behind in that elevator isn’t worth letting back out would mean missing out on one hell of a movie.

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