I quite loved the first third or so of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, at once both familiar and refreshing. Although the story is set in the present day, the electronic tones of the synthy soundtrack lend it a retro feel, as does the startling pink font employed for the opening credits. And I appreciated the meditative mood of the film, which eschews needless dialogue to instead express itself through its sound and visuals.
In the early parts of the film, we see "The Driver," played by Ryan Gosling, working as a wheelman, stunt driver, and mechanic. There is also some suggestion that he might become a stock car racer. But it doesn't really seem to matter what specifically he does; who he is is simply The Driver. Alas, after a heist gone wrong, the movie degenerates into cartoon violence and conventional crime noir narrative, but, up until that point, I really didn't know even what genre of film it was going to be. The rest of the movie could have been spent pursuing the stock car subplot, which seemed no more tangential to the character's identity than any of the action elements. And, frankly, I don't think it would have made a great deal of difference.
The film's real turning point comes, not when the heist goes wrong, but a little earlier, while The Driver is taking his neighbor Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, out for a peaceful nighttime drive. As they stop at a traffic light, she breaks the pleasant silence by quietly mentioning to him that her husband is due to return home from prison soon. The Driver remains stoic as ever, and nothing more is said for the rest of the scene, but I felt even my own heart dropping a little at the news. I imagine it's a kind of defining moment in one's life--not in a good way, but one of crushing finality, as you feel your future coming into focus upon a resignation that the life you wanted is no longer on the table, and whatever tomorrow brings doesn't make a great deal of difference.
But the show must go on, and it does. The understated authenticity of the moment shortly gives way to graphic violence and the exaggerated personalities of the bad guys played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.
Before he heads off to finish the fight alone, The Driver makes one final call to Irene. It's a cliche of the genre: the solitary hero, thinking he's not coming back, leaves behind a message containing his true feelings to the woman he loves. Meanwhile, she might be listening on the other end but unable to find words to say back, or maybe she'll be sitting at home and letting the machine pick up, or maybe she really was away from the phone at the time and is only later playing back the message.
I've always felt uncomfortable with such scenes. In a way, it seems like kind of a jerk move, unfair to the girl, to burden her with a message that basically amounts to "Hey, I know we can't be together, but I've decided to go get killed now, and so I wanted you to know that I love you." What is he looking for? Encouragement? Closure? A witness? It just seems to me that it's too late for any of those things, and the nobler course would be to let her move on. On the other hand, I can understand the impulse, and I suppose that, while it's not a moment that any man can ever be said to have the right to, it's one that we must always forgive them afterwards because they are human.