Thursday, December 6, 2012

The "Drive" Effect



In 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn brought to theaters a deliberately paced, hyper-graphic drama called “Drive,” which starred Ryan Gosling as an unnamed stunt driver who becomes smitten with neighbor-girl Irene, played by Carey Mulligan whose boyfriend falls into with the wrong crowd, led by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. Gosling’s Driver, in an effort to protect Irene, goes after the gangsters and after a number of incredibly gruesome deaths, Gosling and Brooks square off in the film’s final scene.

Almost immediately, the film became a critical darling, scoring a 93 percent on RottenTomatoes.com and was picked as the best film of 2011 by Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers. Gosling’s performance was also universally praised and the fact that he did not get nominated for an Academy Award was considered one of the biggest snubs of award season.

While the film certainly helped legitimize both Refn, who had previously been best-known for 2008’s “Bronson” starring a pre-“Inception” Tom Hardy, and Gosling, it ultimately seems to have done something far more noteworthy: it has redefined a genre.

Prior to “Drive,” violent crime dramas were generally in the vein of Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann: big, fast, and crisp. Movies like Scorsese’s “The Departed” or Mann’s “Heat” featured sprawling landscapes and plots that were driven by the action. In a post-“Drive” universe, though, plot becomes the priority with the violence accentuating it and when those salt crystals of violence do occur, the scenes are incredibly realistic and sometimes a little disturbing.

Following Refn’s lead, several other films have been released recently that are also deliberately paced and hyper-violent, most notably Rian Johnson’s “Looper” and the recently-released “Killing Them Softly,” directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Brad Pitt.

Both films have received critical acclaim, coming in at 94 and 78 percent respectively on RottenTomatoes.com. Both are deliberately paced and feature occasionally graphic violence. While “Looper” may be a bit more ambitious than the other two films, both it and “Killing Them Softly” cater to the same crowd that proclaimed “Drive” to be the best film of 2011 and that Andrew Dominik is involved in this style of filmmaking is not surprising, as he has already been part of a film revolution.

Back in 2007, Dominik, along with Paul Thomas Anderson and The Coen Brothers, revamped what Westerns could be and how those films could be presented. Gone were the days of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, where an unknown stranger comes in, shoots up the bad guys, and then rides off into the sunset.

In 2007’s idea of a Western, the line between hero and villain was not so clear. In fact, it was downright blurry. On one hand, Daniel Plainview is the idea of the American Dream, growing from a humble oil man to a full-blown tycoon in Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” On the other hand, the methods that Plainview uses to achieve his goal are sometimes downright villainous.

Characters in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men” were equally complex (or downright terrifying in the case of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh) and Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the CowardRobert Ford.” None of these films included a “Man with No Name” who rode in, liberated the town, and left. Instead, these movies featured complex, dark, tortured characters where the line between right and wrong was never clear and rarely straight.

Was it right for Llewelyn Moss to keep a bag of money that he found after a shootout? Probably not. Was it understandable, though, when one considers the living conditions that he faced? Absolutely.

It is incredibly telling that this first wave of genre re-invention came about in a time in America when the economic collapse of the late Aughts was just beginning. Things for many Americans was starting to look bleak and who couldn’t relate to Llewellyn stealing that bag of money or the plight of the James Gang, who were just looking to pay the bills?

Similarly, the past year and a half has featured great turmoil in the country. Unemployment remains high as the economy slowly pulls itself out of the hole that was first dug half a decade ago. It should come as no surprise that many Americans have a much bleaker outlook, an outlook that lends itself perfectly to the themes of these movies and the darker, more complex characters that have been created. As Brad Pitt’s character in “Killing Them Softly,” proclaims, “America isn’t a country; it’s a business. So pay me.” In this climate, those are sentiments that millions can agree with.

Make no mistake about it, films such as “Drive” or “There Will be Blood” will never completely replace faster-paced, action oriented films and one needs to look no farther than this year. “Argo” is widely viewed as an early frontrunner for Best Picture this while and while the film is admittedly well-done, it is made in the classic style. It is big; it is loud; and the movie, especially the third act, unfolds at fairly rapid pace. 

Deliberately paced, hyper-violent movies will never be the norm. However, “Drive” proved that Americans would still pay attention and, not surprisingly, people noticed.
--Tony Fioriglio

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