In today’s film climate the business of moviemaking involves tapping the past right from the source. Whether that’s by producing remakes, reboots, reinterpretations, re-re-re-re-re-re whatever, movies often take the iconography, the music, or the feelings of films from the past, to reminisce, homage, or to reach new audiences. This is all commonplace and considered acceptable (in business terms), even if it comes at the expense of the original film, or at the expense of new, original movies being made.
Drive has been accused of being an unoriginal, feature length homage to films of yore. I absolutely refute this classification, because while in some ways Drive is absolutely a love letter to prestigious and obscure movies from the past, it also becomes a part of the past. Deep down, if you strip the film down to its basics, Drive is an archetypal story, with characters, themes and genre styles that have existed since the birth of film. So many movies have formed the identity of Drive, just as Drive has formed the identity of other films since its release, a story existing in many forms throughout history. We’re going to look at those films that both influenced and embody the elements of Drive.
This is a film simply about a character that gets into trouble, and finds a way to get out of it, as are all the movies I’m going to discuss, but before that lets look some of the conventions this storyline holds. Drive delivers its storytelling through its visuals, characters do, rather than say, by which I mean the characters deliver exposition through their onscreen actions than simply explaining everything through dialogue. As a result of these type of character traits, the film wants to tell its narrative through the visuals, through the camerawork, to the music that gives mood and meaning. These are the qualities of crime noir fiction, the kind seen in some of the earliest motion pictures. These were movies that couldn’t employ the kind of violence or special effects seen in modern films, indeed at this point sound was a luxury and so films especially the silent ones had to tell their story entirely through visuals. The portrayal of the Driver character bares remarkable resemblance to the protagonists of crime noir as do the other films I will mention.
Let’s get to the movies already shall we? You don’t have to add too many letters to Drive to find a shockingly similar film in the 1978 crime thriller, The Driver (yes this will get confusing). If it wasn’t for the book that Drive was adapted from, the film could easily be seen as a remake if not a complete rip-off of Walter Hill’s classic film. The two films are so comparatively similar in plot, structure, characters, genre and style, that you’d wonder why Nicolas Winding Refn didn’t just recreate The Driver shot for shot. Both films are about exceptional drivers who work for criminal crews in robberies and heists. They both share the same nondescript name; The Driver (or for Ryan Gosling just Driver), they share similar personality traits, often sparing in their dialogue, only speaking when it’s absolutely vital, saying more through their actions than their words. Despite being criminal chauffeurs they are driven by an uncontrollable dedication to the professionalism of their job as drivers. Their criminal careers end up involving women who in some way compromise the drivers emotionally. The films also share in their atmosphere, how they explore the Los Angeles setting in a slow ambience, yet they roar in excitement for the car chase action scenes.
There are key differences, though these might appear superfluous in the grand scheme of things. One is that The Driver largely takes place across downtown L.A. and central Los Angeles, with some spare industrial locations. Drive explores the artifice and the underbelly of the Hollywood side of Los Angeles. In The Driver we follow The Driver character, but we also see the perspective of Bruce Dern’s detective cop who’s trying to catch The Driver, hoping to trick him through blackmail and betrayal. In Drive the cops are non-existent, almost every character is connected and involved in crime with the exception of Driver’s neighbour and later love interest Irene, who inadvertently gets involved through her ex-con husband, Driver is later hunted by the mafia leading to a bloody demise for all.
The Driver is the closest match for Drive (have I criss-crossed your head yet?), they share fairly identical storylines and this is why for some the differences between the films are not enough. But you cannot copyright nor should you be able to copyright this narrative archetype, just because the two films share so much between each other doesn’t mean that either one should have the final say for how to tell it. Each director, each artist should be allowed to re-tell this story endlessly, creating further mutations on the same DNA strand. The other things I didn’t mention that helps distinguish the films are the times the films were made and their music, The Driver is fairly sparse in its music while Drive has a retro ’80s-esque soundtrack that helps elevate the films personality, style and brings a lot of emotional resonance to its scenes. The Driver is also very sentimental for a film about evading the cops, Ryan O’Neal who plays The Driver is an immensely sad man, drifting along the ’70s streets, and at a time when movies were being increasingly cerebral, The Driver was certainly a breath of fresh air. As for Drive, with its straightforward focus and moving narrative, made people remember what it was about movies and especially the car action film, that made them so much more exciting than the dramatically inept Fast and Furious movies ever could be.
No comparison of Drive would be complete without mentioning Michael Mann’s body of work that takes place in Los Angeles. Films such as Heat, Collateral, Thief, even leaving aside the L.A. setting Mann is known for his protagonists as being professional but complex people who have to deal with personal issues and weighing those responsibilities with their work as a cop or thief, whatever the role maybe, just like in Drive and The Driver. The other wonderful thing about his films is how often he creates parallels between his heroes and villains, making his villains as damaged as their counterparts and just as dedicated to their illicit work as the heroes. While in Drive we largely stay put with Driver seeing crime through his eyes, the film does attempt to humanise some of its mafia characters. Casting Albert Brooks was a conscience attempt to play an actor against type, Brooks has mostly played funny, warm-hearted characters, he brings that warmth into his role here, but only later does he lose all pretence of being some ordinary guy who happens to be connected to the mafia, to just being as cruel and merciless as any other gangster in film. Even Ron Perlman’s character earns some empathy; despite his brashness and sociopathic tendencies the way Driver murders him wearing a mask and drowning him after he was drinking out is something out of a slasher horror film. Not Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th either, knowing Nic’ Refn his influences would come from cult slashers like Maniac or Alice, Sweet Alice. Although Mann is more intent on depicting amorality for both his villains and heroes, and despite being meticulous in his research towards realism, he doesn’t take away from the emotional toll his characters go through and Drive definitely absorbed these attributes.
What does a 1960s Paris set assassin film and a ‘90s, New Jersey set crime thriller have in common? Philosophy. Le Samourai is a work that explores the honour in crime, as does Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. This is shown by how the protagonists of both films follow the samurai code bushido. Ghost Dog is more overt in this depiction with the character Ghost Dog reading out passages from the Hagakure a book on the samurai code. They’re films about applying these very old spiritual-warrior teachings into their work as assassins, as well as the contradiction of applying such insightful philosophy into a grim and deplorable profession. Indeed much like The Driver served as deep inspiration for Drive, the elements of Le Samourai, in structure, character, and thematic meaning, informed Ghost Dog in those same areas. Once again we find protagonists who rarely speak and indeed in Le Samourai‘s case the samurai philosophy is only hinted at and for many viewers would have been completely missed were it not in the title.
Since we’re on the east coast with Ghost Dog, we need to talk about a very important New York set film; Taxi Driver. Imagine instead of a philosophy of thinking like the other two films, what about a character who becomes so delusional and obsessed that he thinks himself the hero. Robert De Niro’s character is often described as anti-heroic but that’s a lie, there is nothing good about his character beyond the fact that he is a pitiable being who has corrupted himself by not stepping out of the seat of his taxi and coming to grips with real human connection. Instead he’s become a man convinced that taking a woman on a date out to the local porno theatre is his idea of a good time. As a local politician campaigns for mayor at the same time the driver loses his date, he’s convinced that he must assassinate the up and coming mayoral candidate for conspiring against him. De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver represents the extreme end of this character archetype, the opposite of Jef Costello; the assassin from Le Samourai. He’s a character who is completely unhinged, there is no professional finesse in what he does, he doesn’t work for profit or by any real philosophy, he’s just mad.
Going back to Drive, you could interpret Driver’s character as a man who lives by principle, by a life teaching that focuses on a complete dedication to a way of life, and yes I am talking about a man who drives a car for heists. All of these characters from the Drivers to Travis Bickle all share the same qualities just in different ways. Applying different professions, different performances, motivations, they all play the outsider, the other. They become a fascination because of what we don’t understand about them, we never get to see them train to get to where they are, we never saw their childhood or the moment they realized their profession. More importantly we shouldn’t know.
Before I end of this piece I wanted to make mention of a number of other films that I could bang on and on about, as they were always in the back of my mind as classic action thrillers that I badly wanted to watch again just for remembering them. Earlier I talked about Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog; well he also directed another film in that same vein called Dead Man, starring pre-massively famous Johnny Depp in one of his best roles. William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA, an ‘80s car action movie at the high point of Friedkin’s early career, his other famous film The French Connection is also brilliant for its contributions to ‘70s film, car action movies, and an early example of Gene Hackman’s acting talents. Speaking of Gene Hackman at the other end of the spectrum of slow moving, suspenseful thrillers is The Conversation, a Francis Ford Coppola movie made right after the first Godfather. Gene Hackman plays a role similar to the protagonists of Hitchcock and Brian De Palma thrillers like Rear Window and Blow Out, characters that have reluctantly fallen into larger plots that change everything for them, utterly gripping, as are those other films. Along those lines, Michelangelo Antonioni was also known for making thrillers, but with more of a pessimistic, and gradual dour bent to them, definitely check out Blowup one of his English language pictures. Going back to car action movies, Bullitt also comes to mind, often cited as the pinnacle of the car action film, simply for a single car chase bumping up and around the steep San Francisco streets as Steve McQueen chases after some hit men in his Dodge Charger. Please gobble all these movies up if you can.