“Life and death are balanced as it were on the edge of a razor.” – The Iliad
Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Irene (Carey Mulligan) stand in the hallway of their low rent apartment building waiting for the elevator. A heist involving Driver in an attempt to help Irene’s husband has, as it must, gone wrong. Her husband is dead. The obligatory mobster wants his heist money and wants Irene and her young son, with whom Driver has forged a tender friendship, eliminated if he’s not going to get it. Driver has the money and agrees to give it to the obligatory mobster in exchange for the safety of Irene and her young son. But mobsters will be mobsters and he sends a hitman to the low rent apartment building to do away with all three of them anyway and collect the money. Which brings us back to Driver and Irene waiting in the hallway of their low rent apartment building for the elevator.
They have the typical exchange in these sorts of situations. Driver suggests he could go away with Irene. She doesn’t exactly say yes or no, partly because one of the wonders of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive is the way in which no one really ever SAYS yes or no, preferring instead to merely DO or NOT DO.
The elevator door opens. A man in a suit is aboard. He makes a move to disembark but stops short. “Sorry,” he says. “Wrong floor.” He steps back in. Irene steps aboard. But Driver lets his gaze linger on Man In Suit. Driver knows what’s up, even if he’s not about to tell or signal quite yet that he does. And so he steps aboard too, to the left of Man In Suit and reaches across him to press the button for his floor, a move which suggests one male wordlessly telling the other male, “This is MY area, not yours, and I will protect it.” The doors slide shut.
Now we are in the elevator. The camera is looking up, Irene to the right of the frame, eyes dead ahead, likely thinking about Driver’s just-made offer, with Man In Suit to the left of the frame, “subtly” eyeballing Driver. Now it’s a reverse shot, Irene still lost in contemplation and Driver “subtly” eyeballing Man In Suit. The camera now cuts in close – suggesting Driver’s POV – to Man In Suit and pans down, revealing a gun tucked away inside his finely tailored coat. (Stupid hitmen! They always do this! Sheesh! Hide that gun, guy!) Back to the shot of Irene looking ahead and Driver “subtly” eyeballing his newfound enemy. Driver looks away. He now knows full well time, score and situation.
The film switches to a wide shot of the elevator which, for being in a low rent building sure looks like it’s art designed to the high heavens, but that, of course, should not be and isn’t of consequence. Man In Suit lingers to the right of the frame in the foreground. In the background, without turning to face her, Driver shifts his right hand back, finds Irene, and delicately moves her to the far corner of the descending elevator.
The camera moves in close on just Driver and Irene, panning up, disregarding Man In Suit because now for a few precious moments the elevator and the world exist just for them. He gently puts his hand on her and swoops in for the kiss as Cliff Martinez’s lush score plays. Irene’s face is oddly indifferent, not saying yes, not saying no, not taking on excitement, not expressing apprehension. Then again, it’s not so odd. Drive as a whole is about its actors so often not reacting, and her simple decision to accept and receive says everything. Their faces tantalizingly dance in and out of the shadows as their kiss – not quite in Hawkeye and Cora’s league (whose is?) but close enough – proceeds. At last, Driver pulls away and emerges from the shadow into the light for but a brief instant before having his face concealed by the darkness again. He draws his closer to Irene, as if to kiss her again, but stops short. To business he must attend.
Now the camera is in the rear of the elevator, the backs of Irene and Man In Suit to us and Driver facing us. Driver glances at Man In Suit and attacks, throwing him up against the elevator wall and then hurling him to the floor. Irene, as taken aback as she is terrified, slides out of the way. Driver stomps on the face of Man In Suit. And stomps and stomps and stomps and stomps. Irene is shaken. Man In Suit is helpless and Driver is making sure he can’t pull the old cinematic trick of Dead Man Who Isn’t Really Dead. The stomps ring out on the soundtrack, as if the sound designer has employed punches from an old Joe Frazier fight. Finally, when Man In Suit essentially no longer possess a face, Driver relents. The elevator door opens. Irene backs out. Driver turns to face her. She faces him. Where do they go now?
Where do we go now?
On my recent 2011 Top 10 movies list Adam from 3guys1movie asked me in regards to my exclusion of Drive if I had not seen it or if I had just not cared for it. A reasonable question. I liked it very much and really only had a few minor quibbles with it, yet…… I will admit that in the face of my favorite films (or favorite pieces of art in general) I am prone to enormous emotional letdowns. I could barely function after the conclusion of Black Swan the first time I saw it but, of course, that was the conclusion. I could regroup and re-stabilize post-movie. But the Elevator Scene in Drive is nowhere near the end. There is still much more to go. And the emotional intensity and insane beauty of the two minute sequence overwhelmed me so much I fear I suffered an emotional crash and burn in the midst of the movie. I somehow needed to pause the projector and recuperate except, clearly, this wasn’t an option. This isn’t fair to the film and that’s why I’m not criticizing the film itself in any way whatsoever. I’m just trying to provide my idiotic logic.
Death, as odd as it seems, has been ridiculously cheapened by the cinema. Deaths in a Michael Bay movie are no different than drivers backing out of the driveway and over unsuspecting worms on a rainy morning. Even The Bourne Supremacy, a film I cherish, casts aside innocent victims with reckless abandon. There has been much talk of the excessive violence contained throughout Drive. Whether or not is excessive in any other portion of the film I cannot and will not say but I will say that in this moment on the elevator it is absolutely correct. No one can truly imagine death because it is so unimaginable. Whether going in your sleep or stepping on a land mine, the how of death isn’t so much the issue for living as the what and where and this is because the what and the where in the wake of death are questions of excess, which is to say questions going beyond the normal limit of our ability to grasp them.
Drive is so much about saying something when nothing is being said. That’s why this moment says everything without speaking a word. Life and death are balanced on the edge of a razor and this is why Driver taking Irene and kissing her isn’t some cockamamie melodramatic moment. It’s that razor. It’s him saying: In this moment I will live, because in this next moment I may die.
WHAT ONE SCENE FROM 2011 WOULD YOU TAKE HOME?