11 October 2011

Blood and Mirrors in Los Angeles

Warning: This essay contains spoilers

Seeing Drive again for a second time, I’m now quite fascinated by the use of surface in the film. An important aspect of the film’s aesthetic, it’s strange to me that this has received so much criticism from various reviewers. I think that the setting in Los Angeles is a key to interpreting the film and certainly not a coincidence. A direct comment on this is one of the most evocative uses of the film’s recurring mirror motif and it highlights the film’s use of surface as well as identity. This occurs near the beginning of the film when the camera tracks past a mirror on the set to reveal the Driver on the other side – and in costume, no less! As we learn, this shot conceals as much as it reveals. For anyone who didn’t notice that one shot or even all the times he’s reflected in the cars’ rearview mirror, there’s the scene in the dressing room where the outer style of the Driver – his jacket – is complemented by his violent underside. At the first viewing, I thought that the scene was just exposition for dealing with Cook, but now I see that with the mirrors, blazing lights, and aggressive masculinity there’s more to it than just narrative. The encounter is the ultimate play of surfaces – and set with some irony in the one of the most obvious of arenas: a strip club.

As Bernie Rose notes at the garage, echoing the basic approach to authenticity that the film investigates, “That’s just a shell. The important stuff is inside.” The aesthetic style of the film is a reflection of Los Angeles itself. This is why I don’t understand the criticism of the film’s slick style. This criticism would make more sense to me if the film were set in Las Vegas, but setting the story in Los Angeles creates the perfect opportunity to make the film look as it does. On top of that artifice, it then goes all out to present the characters as not who they seem. All of the characters play on the surface. The violence beneath is the rupture that reveals the stuff inside. Brooks and Gosling are evenly matched as men who can be equally ruthless when they need to be. Sad as it is, Christina Hendricks as Blanche and Oscar Isaac as Standard have to be killed because they don’t have the foresight to duck down or the strength fight back. They’re not the only ones who didn’t get any fortune cookies. Like Shannon, they just have bad luck.

The slick style permeates the film, but the violence once it has transpired casts an ironic pallor on this aesthetic. Remember that the more vivid examples of violence take place in close temporal proximity. The violence only feels extreme because it’s concentrated in one close segment of the film. That burst more or less cracks the shiny, colorful façade. I wasn’t happy to see Blanche’s head blasted, but it surely demonstrates that the film is not fucking around anymore. Standard is made the first disturbing example of this, but Blanche is the full detonation of audience equilibrium – especially in the aftermath of the car chase when one would supposedly get to regain one’s bearings. After the motel scene, there is no turning back. The blood on the surface of the Driver’s face augers more action yet to come. A later scene is even more devastating. For me, the elevator scene functions to provide the ultimate revelation to Irene. It only feels unnecessary to those not looking because we know what’s inside Driver. However, Irene does not have this information so this scene is given to her. Why are we given the shot of the pulped head? It functions as the logical consequence of the earlier threat with the hammer. Would he really do it and attack Cook in the face? It certainly felt as if he would right there in that dressing room. But would he really go that far? He didn’t in that instance; he did in the instance of the elevator scene, though. We are now aware of how far Driver would go. The look of utter horror on Irene’s face is a result not solely of the violent act she has witnessed. It is also a result of the romantic act in which she was part(icipant). The elevator scene is the movie in a nutshell as well as a clear demonstration of the Driver’s two sides. Personally, I don’t see either as his authentic self. The man alone working on or driving in cars seems to be his true self. This is the man more or less in isolation/opposition to society. It’s the comfortable mask he wears. It's a mask that we all wear. The film clearly displays these three aspects of the Driver – and of each character. Rose gets a beautiful scene of his own as he is shown sitting down with a drink yet clearly horrified by what he did to Shannon. Again, the man more or less in isolation/opposition to the real demands of the world he is in. It’s his burden and he’s aware of it.

This use of masks or surfaces is given its fullest (and literal) expression when the Driver takes the latex one from the set and stalks Nino with it. He has now collapsed all boundaries between his differing selves: man, stuntman, and repairman. (I’d even say that he takes the latex mask as a new way to hide himself after the brutal reveal to Irene.) At this point, he has nothing to lose but himself – hence the encounter with Brooks that we know Driver should avoid. His future now changed, he has to put it behind himself – lose one part to gain another – and move on. To help the one person he most wants, he has had to sacrifice many others – even himself in large part – and give up any future with Irene. That the film does all of this so adeptly and emotionally is to me testament of the film’s beauty, power, and seriousness. All by way of surfaces, appearances, and masks in Los Angeles.

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