Sometimes, the fewer the words, the better

Can you read the emotions of the Driver?

“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” – lyrics from They’ll Know We Are Christians

“Well, ya know, for me, the action is the juice.” – Michael Cherrito, Heat

I missed out on Drive. Mostly, I thought it looked like a cheesy, over-stylized action flick that was going to focus on two actors I’ve never been given much reason to care about (Ryan Gosling, pictured above, and Carey Mulligan) at the expense of two actors I really like (Ron Perlman and the amazing Albert Brooks).

I was way off. My bad.

When I finally did get around to watching Drive recently, I was blown away. Yes, the stylization is there, but it isn’t as heavy as I expected. The movie isn’t dominated by it like, say, The Matrix or anything directed by Quentin Tarantino is ruled by style. The style is focused solely around the Driver, making him an island of ’80s cool in the midst of modern America. The pink cursive writing of the credits, the way every song you hear sounds like a song from the 1980s but isn’t, the classic muscle car, the cheesy wind-up gold watch the Driver uses to time illegal jobs, Gosling’s awesome dragon jacket that the 12-year-old me would have killed to own. It creates an effect where Gosling seems like a man out of time, alone. This isolation is key to the character.

Other than his style, we really don’t know much more about the Driver at the beginning than we do at the end. He lives alone, in a very spartan apartment in a moderately priced neighborhood. He works at a garage full-time and sidelines as a stunt driver. And his off time, he drives for criminal enterprises. That’s it. That’s what you know. He doesn’t have much in the way friends, other than his boss. So no friends, no interests, doesn’t seem to spend any money … he’s virtually a ghost, floating through the world without connection.

Gosling does a masterful job of giving up nothing in his demeanor. Is he happy, sad, depressed, satisfied? We don’t know. And that may be because the character doesn’t know. He only seems to care about two things: Cars and the pulsing energy he feels when he’s behind the wheel. He’s not interested in money, security, women, big houses, hobbies, whatever. The Driver is in it for the juice, with no other cares in the world.

Gosling’s performance brings to mind one of my favorite actors, Takeshi Kitano. In Fireworks, Kitano plays a man whose world is falling apart. From the outside, you would never know. Kitano plays it virtually emotionless. Everything you know about the man you know by his action, not words. His fears, his undying love for his wife. It all comes from what he does, not what he says.

Gosling does the same thing here. After he meets Irene, we know from the smiles, from the time spent with his neighbor and her young son and the nature walk sequence that the Driver has grown fond of Irene and her son Benicio. He never admits it nor speaks it aloud, and he wouldn’t as he knows Irene’s husband will eventually return for her, meaning this is the only time they’ll have together. It’s not John Cusack standing outside Ione Skye’s window with a boombox blasting Peter Gabriel. It’s subtle, it’s charming and it’s real. It’s almost hurtful to watch, knowing that it can’t last.

Then, of course, the situation all goes to shit. The Driver attempts to help Irene’s ex-con husband get some bad guys off his back. It results in the death of the husband and leaves the Driver, Irene and her son as targets. The Driver knows what is happening and finally, for the first time, he must use words to explain himself to Irene.

What happens then may be some of the most powerful moviemaking I’ve seen this year. The Driver admits to Irene that he was involved in the death of her husband and makes an attempt to reach out, to explain the he loves her and that he was trying to help her husband to make her life better. It fails. Irene is enraged and hurt. At that point, the elevator appears on their floor. The Driver knows the man in the elevator is bad news, that he is there for him, Irene and little Benicio. The Driver and Irene get on the elevator. He guides her to the opposite corner of the elevator, turns and kisses her, a passionate kiss for the ages. But in the process of doing that, he also positions himself between Irene and the bad guy. He will protect her. The kiss ends. Then, for the first time, the Driver really shows how much he loves Irene. The Driver grabs the hitman, throws him to the floor and proceeds to turn the bad dude’s head to mush with repeated stomping of his skull. The elevator door opens and Irene exits, staring at the intense brutality in shock and horror. The Driver finishes, and turns to see Irene. He knows now, more than ever, that she will never have him. Yet his feelings for her, the love and protectiveness, do not diminish a bit. He will do what it takes to protect her, and he does, at the expense of his own life.

As a writer, I fall in love with the words. Pretty much makes sense. But sometimes, words get in the way of the person, of who they really are and what they are willing to do for those they love. Director Nicholas Winding Refn, writer Hossein Amini and Gosling do a good job of stripping away the words to reveal the man at the core. You know he loves because he loves, not because he says he does. It’s masterful and powerful in a way few American films are. I can’t recommend it enough.

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