In my last post, I discussed action cinema and the change in emphasis away from the spectacle of pain towards scale and wonder. I qualified, however, that there are still plenty of violent films but that they are very different from films like Olympus Has Fallen. In particular, there is a type of crime film which does not shy away from nor glamorise violence but rather presents it upfront in all its hideous glory. For my money, no movie brings home the treatment of violence in film better than Drive.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn won the Best Director Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and the film was distributed by Icon in the UK. 2011 proved to be the year of the Gosling, as Ryan Gosling appeared in three very different films in quick succession: Drive, Crazy, Stupid Love and The Ides of March, which demonstrated the range of his talents. 2013 looks to be another such year with the releases of Gangster Squad, The Place Beyond the Pines and Gosling and Refn’s reunion, Only God Forgives, which also looks to be very violent.
Across his oeuvre, including Pusher and Bronson, Refn has become associated with a particular kind of screen violence, as his protagonists tend to be existential loners who erupt without warning. Drive’s protagonist Driver echoes Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle in his peculiar and awkward relationships with others, and his recourse to violence to solve the problems that he encounters. Just as there is no warning for when Driver will strike, the violence in the film as a whole often erupts without preamble. I remember my first experience of viewing the film, at a morning screening during Norwich’s hottest October on record (yes, I would rather sit in an air-conditioned cinema than in the sunshine, what of it?). For the first forty minutes, I was drawn into the almost dreamlike representation of Los Angeles, a city I have seen on-screen many times and even visited twice. The film’s unhurried pace, expressive mise-en-scene and smooth transitions lulled me into a false sense of security, so that when a character was shot it came as a real shock. This was only the opening salvo, as in a quick succession of scenes, one character is shot and another stabbed, a man is attacked with a hammer, a head is reduced to mush in the film’s most infamous scene, several men are brutally stabbed. A scene of drowning is relatively restrained in the midst of this carnage.
I call it carnage, but there is relatively little death in Drive as a whole. A total of nine people are killed in the film, which compared to the innumerable deaths in Olympus Has Fallen seems rather tame. But the issue is quality rather than quantity. The deaths in Olympus Has Fallen are largely anonymous, generally quick and, crucially, not dwelt upon. The BBFC Guidelines at “15” state “Violence may be strong but should not dwell on the infliction of pain or injury”; there is little dwelling in Olympus Has Fallen, for example.
In Drive, there is definite dwelling on the infliction of pain and injury. A head is blown apart at close range with a shotgun, the obliteration of the head shown in slow motion with ample spray of blood and brain matter. When a man is stabbed through the chest with a metal shower rail, he is not simply stabbed and left to die – the stabbing is drawn-out, blood bubbling out of the man’s mouth as the rod is forced through his chest with agonising slowness. Later, the sound of a hammer impacting flesh and bone is enough to make anyone wince. Several scenes of stabbing that involve knives and razors do not skimp on the blood and screams. The notorious elevator scene is one of the very few times I have had to look away in a cinema (on home viewings I forced myself to watch), as the unremitting brutality is deeply uncomfortable. The BBFC states that these scenes “contain the strongest gory images, which are at times accompanied by an emphasis on the infliction of pain and injury”, and they are not kidding. Although the violence takes up relatively little screen time, it leaves a lasting impression.
Drive’s depiction of violence is entirely appropriate, as it leaves the viewer shaken and disturbed. It is also very unusual, as violence in film is frequently sanitised to make it acceptable. Drive actually draws attention to this tendency, as Driver does stunt-driving for the movies in which everything is controlled and kept safe. The first driving sequence in the film is similarly safe, as Driver transports two armed robbers away from a crime scene with smooth, elegant precision. In his introduction, Driver dictates his guiding principle:
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.
His approach to life is as simple as a movie – he has his role and other people have theirs. But as he is drawn deeper into the morass that lies between the streets of Los Angeles, his rules are disrupted and simple delineations become blurred.
A striking example of this blurring is the family that Driver helps. Ostensibly, he has a romantic interest in his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), bonding with her son Benicio (Kaden Leos).Yet his involvement with her family is to help her husband Standard (Oscar Isaacs). This seems strange for a movie like this – should he not be drawing closer to Irene herself? His endeavour leads him directly into the escalating violence, which includes a very different car chase to that which opened the film. Faster and messier, Driver guns his car away from a pursuing vehicle in reverse, while reaction shots of his passenger Blanche (Christina Hendricks) show her terror at this turn of events. The chase culminates in the pursuers’ car crashing, and things get more violent as we progress.
The contrast between the two chases is the difference between movies and reality. Drive moves from smooth, predictable organisation to discordant, random, surprises. Its violent sequences are the strongest expression of this, as the arrival of two gun-toting men is without warning as is the stabbing of a man in a pizza restaurant. The elevator scene features the film’s most violent set piece, but also its most romantic interlude. Violence interjects without preamble or significant warning, and when it strikes, it is messy, painful and horrifying to watch.
An interesting exception is a scene in which a car is forced off the road on a beach below and its occupant drowned in the sea. Driver wears the latex mask of a stunt driver, used to disguise the driver’s features in movie scenes. The drowning scene is relatively bloodless and largely rendered in long shot, so we are not exposed to the intimacy of violence as we are in the elevator scene. It is as though the film steps back into sanitised movie violence rather than “real” violence, before the final clash in which two men are graphically stabbed. The chronology of this scene is distorted, however, as two lines of action that would be sequential are intercut to appear simultaneous. Once again, the clear delineations of classical Hollywood cinema are disrupted, indicating the intrusion of something messy and unpredictable. The film’s conclusion is deeply ambiguous, the final shot (presumably) Driver’s point-of-view through the windscreen of his car. He has been injured, so he may be travelling to a hospital, or simply driving until he dies, or perhaps the final shot is posthumous, driving eternally in the afterlife.
I love the ambiguity of this final shot, leaving the viewer to decide what we think Driver’s fate will be. Our faith in him as a cinematic hero has been shaken, with his psychotic eruptions of violence, and the fate of someone about whom we are ambiguous is itself ambiguous. Drive itself provokes complex and contradictory feelings, as it is both beautiful and hideous, seductive and repulsive. The film makes a point about cinematic violence, with its own violent sequences exceptionally graphic in stark contrast to the sanitisation of typical movie violence. Whether this is critical of normal movie practice or simply Refn’s own aesthetic is also ambiguous, resulting in an unsettling viewing experience.
Film violence is a hotly contested debate, with arguments raging on both sides for years. I wrote previously on the two types of violence in Django Unchained, and in an interview with Channel 4, Quentin Tarantino stated that he would not answer questions about violence in his films because he had been doing that his whole career, and he has long been a referent for those concerned with this phenomenon. A recent BBC radio programme on Frank Capra included the comment that films today are too violent, although no evidence was presented. Human beings have enjoyed violent entertainment for centuries, and in cinema we can view both sanitised versions and graphic representation that is perhaps more realistic. Drive highlights this sanitisation by presenting violent assaults in unrestrained gore, as well as hinting at the disturbing psychology behind such attacks.