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Anatomy of a Scene #3: Drive

June 17, 2012

Driver (Ryan Gosling)

“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Rob (John Cusack) in High Fidelity, based on the novel by Nick Hornby

The story goes that when director Nicholas Winding Refn first met Ryan Gosling over the possibility of the two of them working together on Drive (based on the novel by James Sallis), the meeting, to put it mildly, wasn’t going well. They were driving around L.A., Refn reportedly had a cold and was upset about another film project he was involved in, and the two simply weren’t communicating well. That’s when REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” came on the radio, and Refn suddenly realized how to pitch the movie to Gosling. He told Gosling Drive was about a man whose only method of emotional connection was driving around the city at night listening to pop music, and Gosling immediately said yes, he’d do it; from then on, everything was fine.

I was not as big a fan of Drive as others I know were – I’m one of those people who thinks the violence in the second half of the movie is somewhat gratuitous – but I liked the first half of it a lot, and it does capture that feeling of a loner only feeling a connection through pop (or rock) music, and how the music can express feelings he can’t quite express (I don’t feel that way about “Can’t Fight This Feeling”, though; never been a fan of REO Speedwagon). Though Refn uses music only from the last few years (the song “Nightcall” by Kavinksy (featuring Lovefoxxx), which Refn uses in the opening credits, had already been used that year in The Lincoln Lawyer), he and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel make this look like an 80’s Michael Mann movie (with John Hughes, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai and Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo thrown in for good measure), and yet the tension between old and new works somehow. Of the five songs used on the film’s soundtrack (aside from the instrumental score by Cliff Martinez), I would bet, for most people, the most memorable use of one of those songs is of “A Real Hero” by College (featuring Electric Youth), which plays when the Driver (Gosling) is driving Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos) underneath a bridge. That’s a very good scene, but for me, an even better one is the scene featuring “Under Your Spell” by Desire.

The plot up till this point is pretty simple. Driver, who is given no name in the film (although he’s called “kid” by a couple of people), works three jobs. By day, he’s either a stunt driver for the movies or a mechanic at a garage run by Shannon (Bryan Cranston). At night, he moonlights as a getaway driver (his credo, similar to Robert De Niro in Heat and Jason Statham in the Transporter movies, goes something like this; “You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own”). Irene is his neighbor in the apartment building he lives in, and while he’s knows her enough to say hello, she doesn’t really register with him until he sees her at the supermarket interacting with Benicio, whereupon he becomes attracted to her. Because she’s married (her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison), the most the Driver and Irene do to act on their feelings for each other is Irene holding his hand while he drives her in the Los Angeles night. Still, everything is going well – particularly since the Driver and Benicio get along so well – until Irene gets a call from her lawyer saying Standard’s been released from prison.

Irene (Carey Mulligan)

We then cut to the Driver’s apartment room, where he’s working on an engine part (using just a table lamp), while “Under Your Spell” can be heard, though just barely. After a few seconds, Refn and editor Matthew Newman cut to the hallway, and Sigel zooms in on Irene’s apartment door, which has letters over the top spelling out “Welcome Home,” as well as balloons outside the door. The music is also louder, indicating it’s coming from the party. Then Newman cuts to inside Irene’s apartment, where the party is going full swing, and we see Standard playing around with Benicio, and Irene looks on, smiling at first, but then she changes expression and becomes serious. At first, that can be explained by the fact Standard has decided to address the other party-goers (while still hugging Benicio), owning up to his mistakes in the past, expressing gratitude for getting a second chance, and expressing gratitude and love towards Irene for sticking by him. As Refn and Newman cut back to Irene, she’s smiling again, but then she looks melancholy again as the song kicks back in:

I don’t eat, I don’t sleep/I do nothing but think of you

I don’t eat, I don’t sleep/I do nothing but think of you

You keep me under your spell, you keep me under your spell, you keep me under your spell

Up till this point, as loud as it’s been, the music has been playing in the background, understood as source music, but as we see Irene’s expression, and the film cuts to Driver, also looking melancholy, the music becomes louder, playing as a non-source music would. Refn and Newman cut between Driver and Irene, both in the same state of unease, and when the film cuts back to Driver, he puts on his jacket and prepares to go out. When he steps out of his apartment, he sees Irene is sitting outside her own apartment, and the music has switched back to source music again, meaning we can barely hear it since Irene’s door is closed. The two of them talk – Irene apologizes for the party being too loud, Driver jokes about calling the cops, and Irene ambiguously says she wishes he would – and share a long look before Standard comes out of the apartment with Benicio and a trash bag, and we hear the music again. At this point, though we hear Irene, Standard and Benicio talking to each other and acting as a family, Refn and Sigel stay locked on Driver, as he takes the scene in, until Standard snaps him out of his reverie by turning to Driver and asking about him. At this point, we can no longer hear the song, as Standard both asks about, and thanks, Driver for helping out with Benicio, and asks about Driver’s job as a stunt driver. Irene volunteers to take the garbage, but Standard tells her not to bother, and tells Benicio, “Let Mommy talk to her friend.” As Standard takes the garbage out, Driver and Irene share one last look before he heads out, and as he does, Standard comes back and wishes him good night.

Normally, I’m not a big fan of music that’s lyrically too on-the-nose when it comes to describing what’s going on in the scene; it has the same effect as using what I call “sentimental strings” for a romantic scene. But while the lyrics are direct (and what I quoted above is the whole song, lyric-wise), singer Megan Louise has a haunting voice, which adds to the melancholy vibe, as do the synthesizers played by producer Johnny Jewel; they’re just as repetitive as the lyrics, but he knows how to modulate and vary them to express the mood. In addition, given the nature of Driver – he rarely speaks, or for long, and what he says is pretty simple and direct – it’s appropriate the song expressing his feelings (or feelings he didn’t know he had) would be just as simple and direct. And yet, at the same time, the song also works expressing the ambiguous feelings Irene has (she’s happy her husband is out of prison, and is already bonding with Benicio, but she also realizes she has feelings for the Driver), and while cutting back and forth between two characters in two different places during one song isn’t new – it was most artfully done, I think, in the “Wise Up” sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia – Refn and Newman do it especially well here. Of course, it also depends on the acting, and Mulligan and Gosling both deliver here. Both of them are very good at showing both the surface emotion while being subtle about what’s underneath (it comes as no surprise the scene following this is the first one to hint at the violence Driver has within him).

One scene I always come back to when talking about how romance or love is depicted in movies is the scene in Moonstruck where Nicolas Cage tells Cher how love isn’t this perfect thing, but it breaks your heart and often makes you miserable. Most of the time, movies these days talking about love don’t want to confront that, not because they think that point of view is harsh – if they did, and show you why love is beautiful, that would be one thing, and there are movies that do that well – but because they’re afraid if they even show one bit of messiness, people won’t watch. This timidity in movies about love – and, to be fair, in many books and plays that came before movies – probably inspired in part all those songs about heartbreak and misery alluded to in the Hornby quote I put at the top of the page. I don’t know if what the Driver and Irene feel towards each other is love – and they probably don’t either, due to Driver not talking about it and Irene feeling torn – but the confusion and melancholy they feel seems right and true, helped by the song, and it’s part of why I liked the first part of Drive so much.

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