Writing about this week’s most fascinating release, “Drive,” which surprised everyone by earning its director Nicholas Winding Refn the Best Director prize at Cannes in May, presents me with a bit of a quondam. Whilst there is a great deal to say about the film, many of the topics which struck me immediately as being worthy of consideration have in fact already been broached in this column.
You may recall, for instance, that I used the wonderful documentary “Senna” to launch into a deconstruction of the masculine psyche involving male symbiosis with machine, manifested in high-adrenaline cinematic car chases. Through mastery of one’s vehicle, phallic gear stick and all, a man can assert his authority as a narrative’s heroic alpha male: or he can crash out and so become emasculated. “Drive” takes this idea deeper on a psychological and philosophical level in the shape of Ryan Gosling’s nameless driver: everything in his life as a mechanic, stunt driver, getaway artist and would-be racing driver is defined by the act of driving, and the introverted individual can repress his psychotic tendencies through the precision, focus and adrenaline of driving. When this control is lost, and a heist backfires, his psychotic tendencies are brought into full-blooded, brutally graphic visceral realisation, and the body count rises following a series of gruesome, ultra-violent murders. Gosling portrays his eponymous enigma with a degree of measured calm and infantile simplicity, his soft-spoken demeanour, exposure to the horrors of crime from a passive position behind the wheel of a vehicle, and his romantic and spiritual salvation through the angelic grace of a maternal feminine (Carey Mulligan), identifies him in part to De Niro’s psychotic driver in Scorsese’s masterpiece: but again, this work has already been covered in considerable detail.
The “Taxi Driver” analogy does, however, shine a light upon an area of enquiry I haven’t yet pursued, one which in fact marries general cinematic interests in director and actors. The origins of “Drive” lie in Ryan Gosling coming aboard the project, and changing it in one fell swoop from a B-movie star vehicle to an art-house exploitation thriller by bringing Nicholas Winding Refn to Hollywood to direct the film. Refn proceeded to have the script re-written by Hossein Amini, returning to the source novel and stripping it down to its most taut and tense form. In the same way Steve McQueen pushed for Peter Yates to direct “Bullitt” and Lee Marvin held out for John Boorman to make “Point Blank,” both of which are referenced by Refn in his handling of the film’s Los Angeles setting, “Drive” is an example of an actor with clout making an offbeat directorial choice which ultimately elevates the final film above its potential. On paper, “Drive” is a very thin thriller caper, a well-tread plotline peppered with familiar tropes and motifs, and a peppering of action. In Winding Refn’s hands, it becomes an ultra-stylish tour-de-force of disciplined choreography. The lighting starkly reflects the superficial golden glow of Hollywood; the urban cityscapes of electric light turn LA into a suitably shadowy dystopian city; set pieces flare into pulsating, powerful life through controlled direction, tight editing, and a gloriously idiosyncratic use of music; explosions of violence are transformed into sequences of resplendent, horrifying beauty through intensely graphic and bloodthirsty slow-motion execution; and Gosling’s central performance is cool, complex and magnetic. In short, through this collaboration between actor and director both parties emerge from their contributions to the work as stronger artists, and this theme of actor-director collaborations securing mutual betterment recurs through cinematic history.
This is a little different from collaborations between a director and actor who from the outset share a strong cultural and artistic sensibility, which becomes manifest in their work together. John Ford and John Wayne, for example, both made their way through the Hollywood studio system as stolid professionals, and shared the crucial personality traits of being firm-set, macho republicans. Their work together in the Western genre therefore combines the actor’s stalwart, bluntly heroic machismo with the director’s desire to visually and culturally provide the genesis of the mythologisation of the American West into a more patriotic vision of romantic law-making than it actually was. Similarly with Scorsese and De Niro, justly the most lauded director/actor partnership in the history of cinema, both talents emerged from the same generation and the same neighborhood of the immigrant New York Italian American community, and also share an unwavering dedication to screen realism and the unflinching exploration of dark human truths. Therefore, it is natural that their best work inhabits and defines the cinematic representation of New York City, and that the drama of their chosen narratives delves uncompromisingly into the murkiest depths of the nihilistic, savage male psyche.
What are ultimately more tangled and troublesome affairs than these collaborations are those in which an inherent symbiotic relationship is not assured, and the actor and director come from very different artistic and cultural spaces. Winding Refn and Gosling are in such a relationship in “Drive:” the European outsider and the Hollywood indie actor combining to explore the alienated Angelino, pooling both their similarities and differences to create a piece which, aesthetically if not morally, no other team could have accomplished. It is not the first time Refn has had such an interestingly peculiar relationship with a leading male actor, to which “Bronson” is testament. Here we have Refn as less of a European art-house auteur and more as an upstart Danish prodigy, and Tom Hardy as the emergent chameleonic, fearless method actor, both men bound to a project exploring brutality and rebellion (familiar to both) and the malaise of the British punitive system (unfamiliar to both, Hardy in his acting rejecting his native Englishness). The film is more a star vehicle for Hardy than a touchstone film for Refn, but both are out of their comfort zones in very different ways and the result of their collaboration therefore becomes both flawed and fascinating. The same can be said of Scorsese’s later multi-film collaboration with Leonardo Di Caprio. The director is on home territory exploring gang warfare, but is challenged by period settings in “Gangs of New York” and cultural displacements in “The Departed.” Di Caprio already possessed the inherent naturalism Scorsese has always favoured, but he was pushed into the kind of character acting unfamiliar to him when faced with playing Howard Hughes in “The Aviator.” The four films to emerge from this partnership are flawed to varying degrees, but herein lies the fascination: these films are not works of polished perfection, but represent two dedicated artists helping to push each other to the limit.
Being pushed to the limit is certainly what defines the most tempestuous of these cinematic partnerships: that between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Uniquely in this case, Herzog would later make a documentary, “My Best Fiend,” directly interrogating his artistic collaboration with Kinski, and which details the mutual respect, hatred and suspicion between the two men. Again, the two men are from very different backgrounds and generations, and approach their work from opposing perspectives: Kinski the mad and tortured self-proclaimed genius, Herzog the intrepid maverick exploring highly idiosyncratic obsessions. Madness and obsession are different animals, the former being the hallmark of the actor and the latter being the chief trait of the director, and both men in the films they made together provoked the definitive quality of the other. “Fitzacarraldo” is as much about Kinski’s aimless insanity as it is about Herzog’s identification with a “conquistador of the useless,” and “Aguirre, Wrath of God” harnesses the actor’s suppressed rage alongside the hypnotic, delirious strangeness of the Amazon as seen through the eyes of a demented director/adventurer. In the case of Kurosawa’s work with Toshiro Mifune, both men again found in each other a spur to what they wished to achieve with their talents. Mifune’s urgency and hyperbolic dynamism suited the aesthetic style of a director determined to bring action, excitement and frenetic energy to a very controlled and austere national cinema, and so although the two men represent a clash between grandstanding invention and kinetic classicism their films always permitted joint cinematic fulfillment.
In the end, “Drive” is more of a calling card for a hugely talented director in the international mainstream than it is an offbeat, challenging star vehicle, but Gosling benefits nonetheless through contributing majorly to the realisation of a distinct and brilliant piece as both lead actor and instigator of Refn’s appointment. It is an outstanding example of the kind of collaborative artistry that truly defines great cinema, as opposed to misguided auteur theory which ignores the essence of film as an industrial process. There is more than one name in a film’s credits, and all of those names have a voice in the creation of art.