It is not the kind of film I would normally go to see -- a violent thriller with gangster killings -- but surprisingly, I ended up enjoying Nicolas Winding Refn's new Hollywood release, Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, if simply for the non-stop dramatic tension. The story is compelling: based on James Sallis' eponymous novel, it is about an expressionless handsome Travis-type character who drives for a living: stunt-cars by day and get-away cars at night for criminals. His rather machine-like existence is challenged when he falls tenderly in love with a sweet young woman, played (a bit too sweetly) by Carey Mulligan. His ethics change, and now his main drive in life is to be her prince. This involves a few killings, like crushing a head with his heel.
Refn is known for film style, in previous works such as Pusher and Bronson, and this film also is very stylish: especially in the night driving scenes and in the innovative car chases. What is most enjoyable, however, is the lead actor's cryptic face. Gosling has a Mona Lisa smile, and an intriguing way of standing mute in corridors, staring steadily at whomever is around him, whether foe or princess.
I asked director Refn upfront what value he thought his movie has for his audience, besides entertainment.
"Drive is a fairytale," the young director said, tapping his sneakered foot tensely under his chair, while looking very confident and poised in his tortoise-shell glasses and black sweatshirt -- an intriguing combination.
"I had been reading Grimm's fairy tales to my oldest daughter, and I wanted to make my movie a fairytale in Los Angeles. The Driver character is a mythological character like Shane and John Wayne: the man wearing a satin jacket with a scorpio on the back, who comes in and protects the innocent from evil, sacrificing himself for purity. Fairytales are universal. Cultures all over the world have archetypes -- the samurai, the Western cowboy."
And now we have the Driver.
Gosling came to the table, lanky in a striped tank top, surprising me with his boyish and open manner, so different from the character he plays in the film. On one bare shoulder, he had an inked square tattoo, with names written in cursive by each line. "It's a book my Mom read to me as a child," he grinned. The names are of his mother and sister.
Not the hard killer in the movie.
The movie came about, he explained, because Gosling chose Refn to be his director, and Hollywood flew the Danish director in. The two men spent two months together -- in a blissful Hollywood existence, the director told me -- living in a mansion with a pool and orange trees, and driving at night, listening to pop music and creating the screenplay.
"It was a famous blind date," Refn offers with enthusiasm. "We had a mental fuck in the car, a creative marriage. I was the mother and he was the father, bringing this child to life."
The resulting screenplay has little dialogue, and mostly action. "In a fairytale structure, it is all about actions, emotions," Refn tells us. "Fairytales can be read by children or adults." As for the brutality: "you can't have champagne without violence."
Gosling noted that the major difference between his character and Scorsese's "Travis" is that his character is movie-savvy. He has been influenced by all the movies -- by Travis and Shane and Rambo -- and is a product of them as well. Gosling admitted that he himself was similarly influenced by movies. As a child, seeing First Blood, he picked up a box of knifes and threw them at kids. Later seeing Rocky, he picked a fight. "Movies took me into their world."
But who is this driver?
"He's mythic," Gosling laughs. "He comes from nowhere. With other roles, yes, of course, I would have invented a back story. But not for him."
He joked: "Now I wish I could do every film silent. Talking is distracting."
Still, such a cryptic hero -- who is both good and evil -- who both lives and dies -- is perhaps a bit too cryptic to have a powerful lasting effect on the psyche, like the masterpieces Shane and Taxi Driver, where the story moves between archetype and the real, breaking from the genre mode to express a haunting vision. While this new movie is enjoyable, the fairytale is, after all, Hollywood.
"Being here at Cannes is a fairytale too," Gosling observed with a smile.
After the premiere (where the film received a fifteen minute standing ovation and Refn kissed Gosling on the mouth) a car drove them to a party in a castle.