The Driver (Ryan Gosling) with no name is a shark. Coldblooded, precise, and silent at the wheel, his hauntingly dead eyes scan the horizon predicting avenues of direction and escape. While physical movement is subtle, represented by the squeeze of a fist or a thrust of the gear stick, intense mental concentration is his way of the gun. Piercing through the Los Angeles concrete jungle of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive means existing within a closed-door genre universe ripe with references and cues, and Driver moves like a dorsal fin cutting through the water. The man is a perfect working machine (résumé: Hollywood stunt driver, mechanic, and getaway driver), and getting from point A to B is his only motivation.
But there's always a girl. After a kinetic, nearly dialogue-less opening, Drive momentarily relaxes into a sunny groove—the first of many more juxtapositions between light and dark. Driver's cold existence starts to melt when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son who live next door. The hope for romantic and familial connection unhinges his rigid professional code one smile at a time. Deep longing is replaced with a glimmer of light, and the twinkles in each character's eyes speak volumes. Gosling and Mulligan in particular look like they were born to be in a two shot together.
Refn doesn't immediately rip the rug out from under these characters, but the turning of the tide certainly builds with the introduction of a Hollywood producer/gangster (Albert Brooks) and Irene's ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac). Double-crosses, car chases, and close-contact violence twist Drive back into the territory of Walter Hill, kind of like a sleek urban spin on the bloody aesthetics of Extreme Prejudice. Driver sports a prime-fitting racing jacket with a scorpion symbol for a spine and his rage stings quickly before retreating to reassess collapsing windows of escape.
Drive's narrative trajectory goes down a long and winding road into hell, and Refn's genre signposts form stirring corridors, avenues, and lanes of directionality. Dimly lit hallways, empty doorways, recycling stoplights, and tinted windows all reflect varying shades of shadow and light. A key scene in a cramped elevator is the apex of Refn's contrast between light and dark, displaying the purity of emotion one moment before cutting directly to the film's most insanely brutal exchange. If there's a more riveting moment in a film this year I'll be shocked.
As Driver propels forward through these haloed spaces, his silent façade gains a level of texture that elevates Drive beyond a simple genre exercise; this is just as much a study of faces as it is a virtuoso stylistic homage. Refn makes the entire film one long battle for safe passage, specifically Driver's need to section off regret, guilt, violence, and horror from Irene's family. The visual and audio details, along with the perfectly cued pop music score, make Drive completely enthralling. Examples are aplenty: shadows of two men immersed in a knife fight, a crashing car overturning behind the foreground action, and a slow-motion march of death down a flickering strip club's entrance. All are wonderful echoes of a blistering genre past, and in Drive they are brilliantly reimagined for a whole new generation of cinephiles to appreciate.
I can't imagine two films as stylistically different as Drive and Hong Sang-soo's sublime cinematic stroll from the city, The Day He Arrives. Shot in murky black and white, Hong's film traverses an open-air spectrum of repeating nuances, locations, and dialogue in charming ways. The small groups of characters, including mildly famous film director Sungjoon (Yu Jun-sang), who's visiting an old friend in Seoul, graze on the coincidences and human fallibilities defining their overlapping mental quirks. Together, they're like lost sheep roaming the urban academic landscape for a shepherd.
The typical Hong plot points and obsessions consistently appear: talky anecdotes, extreme social drinking, male fragility, and female loneliness. So why does The Day He Arrives feel so genuine and sad where some of the director's other film's come across as pedantic and shallow? Here, Hong is less concerned with the potency of his character's pain and more with the extended duration, the longing inherent to the process. This ends up making all the difference. He measures the repeating stories and mistakes with an attention to overlapping time, giving each personal moment of déjà vu a hazy importance.
Characters always comment on the consistent cold weather, the chance occurrences, and the levels of familiarity each story shares, but they fail to see the grander problems within their own contradictory decision process. This makes the warm drunken interiors even more misleading, intoxicated soft spots for people collectively coping with the disappointing lull of existence. While the tone of such sequences is always aglow in possibility, the complex reality of their failures to love and evolve is readily apparent in the last shot of the film. Exposing your own self-portrait, even over a bottle or two of soju with friends, can sometimes be too hard to bear. It's wondrous melancholia.
Paolo Sorrentino's messy This Must Be the Place also centers on a character's search for redemption. An aging rock star named Cheyenne (Sean Penn) picks up his dead father's quest to take revenge on a Nazi hiding somewhere in America, and his journey reveals certain key elements of a currently troubled American experience. Penn's wacky and wonderful method performance allows Sorrentino some leeway during the opening act. Straggly long hair covers Cheyenne's face, which is caked in eye makeup and heavy lipstick. Odd facial tics and Penn's low-pitch warble is accentuated almost to the point of parody, but not quite. His incarnation of a man dying a slow emotional death has nuance to spare, best signified in the screechy wheels on his grocery cart.
I admire what Sorrentino and Penn are trying to accomplish with This Must Be the Place, especially in the visually inventive early moments set in New York City. Cheyenne visits David Byrne and the Talking Head frontman's gravity-defying performance of "This Must Be the Place" is especially impressive in both scope and cinematic skill. But the narrative is so flimsy and dialogue beyond allegorical that it's hard to take any of Cheyenne's arc completely seriously. Even when the conversations between Cheyenne and a cross-section of American personalities add up to a jumble of non sequiturs and tangents, there's a sentimental undercurrent that is particularly worrisome. This single-mindedness comes to a head in the film's final sequence of retribution. A century's worth of pain and suffering is not quelled, but repeated through a reductive act of humiliation. Like Cheyenne says, it's the moment where "that will be my life" turns simply into "that's life." This Must Be the Place shows that a movie can kill with impunity without much effort.