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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Review of Drive (dir. Nicholas Refn, 2011); OpenPlan Film Criticism Collaboration Sample / Tool

E-Learning Queen is delighted to offer an OpenPlan Film Criticism Collaboration Paper example and template / tool. This OpenPlan offering is designed to help overcome some of the problems that accompany online collaborations. For example, lack of motivation and confusion with course procedures can cause online collaborations to fall flat. However, with wikis and other documents sharing programs (Google Docs, for example), collaborations can be the highlight of an online course.

The key to successful collaborations is having a good instructional strategy that includes a topic that is intrinsically motivating. One of the most engaging collaborations can be to develop movie review teams, and to create reviews. The structure can be very flexible, ranging from a back-and-forth point-counterpoint approach (or a thumbs-up, thumbs-down exchange), to the production of a seamless document that successfully melds together the two voices to create a satisfying, engaging read.

There may be some utility in maintaining a bit of the rawness in the process. In E-Learning Queen’s OpenPlan Film Criticism Collaboration Paper In the example below, some of the data is presented at the end as a kind of mini-appendix.


Drive (dir Nicholas Refn, 2011) by Susan Smith Nash and Seth Lynch

Drive (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011) features a gorgeous noir city with sharp-edged skyscrapers and pinpoints of light above the labyrinth of roads that constitute Los Angeles. The opening voiceover refers to the seeming infinity of interweaving streets, the labyrinth of physicality and solitude, which wind and converge. One might think that the taciturn Driver is the hero of the film, but it's much more complicated than that. Like so many self-reflexive films, Drive contains interpenetrating references and allusions to elements in the popular consciousness: the first that come to mind are video games (Grand Theft Auto, Midnight Club), cartoons (Speed Racer), classic car chase sequences (Bullit, The French Connection), and the cars themselves -- gleaming, fast, classic (‘73 Chevy Malibu).

One of the elements of Drive is extreme, almost surreal precision. The Driver (or “Kid”) meticulously plans his heist getaways. For example, in the opening scene’s basketball game getaway has been planned to the second. The film begins with him in a hotel room with the game on the television. After the opening getaway scene, nowhere else in the movie does it show him watching or listening to sports. While in his deliberately anonymous Impala, he simply listens to the game for the timing, knowing the exact moment to lose the cops in the arena’s parking lot. He dons a team hat, but he doesn’t wear it again. He has no interest in the game other than using it as a getaway. His sole focus and purpose is driving and when Irene asks him what he does for a living, he responds, “Drive.” Of course he follows this by saying he is also mechanic, but only after Irene asks if he drives for the movies.

Precision shows up in other aspects of the film as well: the Driver carefully works on an intake manifold and gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) slices the veins in the hapless Shannon’s arm with surgical finesse so that it bleeds out quickly and “painlessly.”

Like the Damascus knives that Bernie Rose collects, precise engineering can either mean the ultimate heist getaway – allowing mere mortals to transcend the limits of our corporeal existence, both in the bodies that bind us, and the laws – or the ultimate meting out of carbon-steel justice. You transgress, you pay.

One might think the gangsters in the film are uniformly clocklike in their precision, as is the Driver. They are not. In fact, the gangsters are refreshing in that they are not filled with hubris and do not have ostentatious lifestyles. Instead, they are fearful and essentially greedy. Their violence is messy but mercifully quick.

The Driver enables gangsters to do what they do, but he is not gangster. Instead, he is a layered, complex, paradoxical presence. The Driver possesses attributes that blur the line between hero and anti-hero. Once he decides to act (violence, expert maneuvers), he doesn’t hesitate. He is very controlled under normal circumstances, but has difficulty restraining himself from bashing a mobster’s head in with a hammer, and his inner struggle is evident in the fact he is sweating profusely. The audience may notice that the strippers in the dressing room who witness the violence are not shocked, but are still in a kind of frozen tableau that also gives the impression of a scene from a comic book, cartoon, or video game.

The Driver knows he is flawed, and with that self-knowledge, he can detect the flaws of others: when Bernie extends his hand, he is left hanging for a while, then the Driver says his hand is a little dirty. Bernie says his hand is dirty, too. This scene parallels the scene when Bernie reaches out to shake Shannon’s hand only to slash the veins in his forearm. Judging character seems to be something one possesses as an instinct. When watching TV, the Driver asks Benicio how he knows a character is a bad guy and Benicio says he just knows.

The overall mise-en-scene reinforces the experience of being the driver and feeling the car, the streets, the omnipresent threats (police, gangsters, and attachment). Panning long shots establish the driver and the viewer in a maze, and prepare one for high speeds and adrenaline, while two-shots where the individuals are on the edges of the frame reinforce the idea that togetherness is something strived for but never quite achieved.

Further, many of the shots are framed within the frame, which gives the sense of looking through a window or from a keyhole. The experience is both distancing and voyeuristic, which adds to the sense that you can never really get to know the Driver, nor can you establish consubstantiality or true resonance. There is a wall that blocks the viewer from projecting too much of one's emotions, except in the sense of alienation and profound existential solitude.

With the modifications made to the cars, and the latex masks and costumes / disguises employed by the stunt driver / getaway driver, identity is problematized. It is always changing, except for the things that do not change -- scorpion jacket and a sleek, fast car.

The city itself adds to the notion of problematized identity as drivers make their way in the pristine, dark labyrinth of city streets at night. The implication is that one can ever get free. All roads lead back to an emotional minotaur, or at least to Nino, who will call due your obligations, and will trap you with your own dreams, whether they be of money, freedom, or emotional connection.

The white satin jacket with the embroidered scorpion on the back represents the Driver’s life. In the beginning it is clean; likewise, the driver is unencumbered with emotion: he has no real feelings for others. He works for Shannon, but they do not appear to be friends. It is little more than a business relationship, but he is loyal to his boss (he goes after Nino right after he discovers a bled-out Shannon in the garage, though he likely would have gone after him anyway to save Irene and Benicio). In the beginning of the film, when the Driver shows up at Shannon’s garage to take out the Impala, he is told about the car (the most common model in California, but with a modified engine), but the Driver does not respond. The Driver only speaks to Shannon twice: he tells him to cut out his joking with Irene, then angrily confronts him after determining how Bernie learned who drove the getaway car in the pawnshop robbery.

The jacket becomes soiled with blood after he assaults Cook in the strip club and later when he viciously kills a hit man in the elevator. The stains on the jacket show parallel a life soiled by the messy relationship he forms with Irene. Though their relationship is mostly pure (while Standard is alive, they do nothing more physical than hold hands), the responsibility he feels for her and Benicio compels him to help to make any sacrifice. The scorpion is emblematic of the driver. He asks Bernie if he’s heard the story of the scorpion and the toad, indicating that he is the scorpion and will act accordingly. His fate is to kill those who fail to recognize his true nature. He also knows that Bernie is no different. He instantly sizes him up at the track and does not change his mind. When Bernie offers to meet, the Driver understands what is in store. They will both act predictably. The Driver knows not to trust what Bernie says to him at the restaurant. When Bernie says he will be let go, only to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life, the Driver simply responds with a smile.

Drive is amazingly intertextual, and the icons in it evoke elements of other films. There are many references / visual allusions, probably too numerous to mention here. However, the Driver’s scorpion jacket must be recognized as utterly metonymically intertextual, namely, with another racing film in which the protagonist wears an iconic jacket: Rebel Without a Cause.

The Driver wears the mask to conceal his identity while performing stunts. He also takes it from the trailer at the movie set and uses it to stalk and kill Nino. Anonymity provides the driver with a sense of comfort in his violence. He becomes habituated to using it while doing dangerous stunts and it gives him the courage to take out a ruthless gangster. He does not use it as a getaway driver, because these situations call for self-control. He doesn’t simply outrun the cops, but skillfully hides from them. In this scene, and in the chase scene following the pawnshop robbery, he uses slick tactics, not aggression, to evade his pursuers.

In a larger sense, masking is the essential mechanism that resonates in an uncertain world, where people can’t be trusted, and love is always unattainable, either due to one’s own honor codes, or because it’s taken away before things can be realized. Masking is the protective carapace that allows one to take action. To be emotive means you’re incapable of true action, and, further, you can’t be an action hero. To be taciturn and emotionless, means that you are capable of action. You possess the essential attributes of an action hero.

The action hero must live with contradictions and paradoxes. The Driver is at his happiest when he can be himself around Irene, but he has a secret identity as a wheelman. Of course there is another side to him that he tries to hide. He does not tell Irene he about his criminal activity, even when he plans to help Standard pay off his protection debt. He does not want to burden or implicate Irene with any knowledge of the robbery, but wants them to remain pure. Likewise, he does not want to provide them with any knowledge of his violent nature, but when called on to protect them, he will act. He knows he has to kill the hitman in the elevator, yet he understands Irene will be appalled. He kisses her, knowing that what he has to do will change her perception of him. After he stomps in the man’s head, he looks at her with a wild sadness as he realizes Irene is too shocked to speak or to stop the elevator door from shutting between them and their relationship closes. The driver knows that whatever happens, he and Irene can never be together. He calls her one last time to conclude things. He tells her that the time he spent with her and her son was the most meaningful experience of his life.

During other times of violence without the mask, it is essential for him to remain in control. After he smashes Cook’s hand with a hammer, he has his arm back ready to bash him in the head as he speaks with Nino on the phone. Even after Nino questions the offer to settle things, the Driver does not kill Cook because he hopes the situation can be resolved.

Feelings do not flow freely through a mask, and likewise, the viewer is not likely to see much emotion in the action hero. Blood, however, does flow freely, which allows the catharsis to take place, and the action to have a focus. In Drive, as in many other action films, the emotions / blood starts flowing when a loved one is harmed or in danger of being harmed. The anti-hero's flawed nature is what gives him the advantage when dealing with the villains of the film because the anti-hero possesses the same knowledge and perhaps even the same nature. What ultimately saves the anti-hero is the fact that his motives are sacrificial, and that his blood flows almost as freely. The Diver is shot, beaten, and broken -- his pain absolves him. It also awakens him, and he feels again. Ultimately, the loved one is spared, and the audience has experienced a vicarious flow as well, either in relating to the sacrifices of the hero, or in a cold recognition that they, too, inhabit a world where the price one pays for being (or seeming) emotionally impervious and distant is a brutal (and often fatal) pain upon awakening.


Appendix: Violent scenes

  1. Gangster (“Cook”) stabbed by Bernie in the eye with a fork and then with a knife in the chest.

  2. In Shannon’s garage, Bernie slices Shannon’s arm and causes him to exsanguinate

  3. In the parking garage, two thugs seek out Standard in order to collect on the “protection” debt that Standard incurred while in prison

  4. In elevator, the Driver stomps to death a thug sent to kill him

  5. In parking lot outside pawnshop, there is violence when Standard is shot by someone in the pawn shot (and not someone in the Chrysler 300 with tinted windows that pulls up as though it’s part of a rival gang. (startling since you don’t see who shoots Standard – expected something to happen because the Chrysler 300 with limo-tinted windows pulled up close to the driver’s stolen Mustang and no one got out, but didn’t expect shooting to come from the pawnshop; similarity to precision driving because of quick action, must have quick reflexes)

  6. In hotel room (didn’t expect Blanche to be killed with a shotgun blast to the head since she was with the mobsters, she called them when the driver leaves the hotel to call Irene).


OpenPlan Film Criticism Collaboration Template / Tool

  1. List the name of the film, the director, year released, and the key characters and actors.

  2. Where and when does the film take place? What is the atmosphere?

  3. What is it about this film that makes you care about it? How does it engage you emotionally? Intellectually? What is the primary focus of the plot?

  4. What makes this film special? What are the narrative elements that set it apart from others?

  5. How do the characters distinguish themselves? How are they special / unique? What do they do or say? (Describe illustrative scenes)

  6. What is the dominant camera work? What types of shots characterize this film?

  7. What are other films that may resonate with this film? List them, and describe what makes them have something in common with this one.

  8. What are some aspects of the film that you’re not quite sure how to process, but which linger long after you’ve seen the film.

  9. List a few philosophical / psychological ideas that may relate to the film.

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