July 3, 2011
The press out of Cannes collectively illustrated a number of ecstatic moments in Nicolas Windig Refn's Drive: a kiss in an elevator, a death by boot heel, a 96 fps gunfight of distended consequence. There was one scene, however, which stuck out to me more than these as the perfect illustration of the distilled machismo style Refn was after. It takes place in a strip club, as Ryan Gosling's nameless hero is tracking down a lowlife who's done him wrong.
The first shot: from inside a dimly lit building, we see Gosling approaching the back door. He's wearing a rubber face mask, which lends his already oblique persona a few more degrees of anonymity. He is simply a Man at this point. In the foreground is a shapely young woman texting on her phone, her lingerie suggesting the type of establishment this might be. Gosling enters. She scarcely looks up from her phone as he passes her, nor does she bat an eyelash at the hammer he wields his hand.
The next shot: we follow Gosling into a faux-lush backstage dressing room, where he finds his prey amidst a congregation of strippers, all of them topless, most if not all of them sporting noticeable breast implants. Gosling doesn't waste a beat. He grabs the perp and lays into him with the hammer, crushing his hand. As this brutal violence plays out, the most striking aspect of the scene is the way the strippers don't respond. They simply watch, more bored than bemused, and in their stillness they create a frieze of exaggerated femininity that is the equivalent of Gosling's badass posturing. Their presence lends credence to his machismo; their fake tits balance out his own vacancy.
Refn repeatedly draws our attention to these attributes, particularly in the last shot of the sequence, when Gosling relinquishes his victim - alive, and with a message - and leaves the club. The camera starts with one of the women framing the left side of the image. As we follow Gosling's actions, follow his exit, the camera pushes past her, zooming over the exaggerated swell of her breast so explicitly that it almost becomes a part of the action, rather than just a topographic element of the composition. Were these ladies screaming, hiding, in peril or otherwise reacting, this shot and most of those preceding it would be leering and misogynist (see: Transformers 3). And perhaps it is leering, but Refn undercuts his more primitive instincts with something decidedly more auteurist. Later, when Gosling finally sweeps up Carey Mulligan and her mousy sweater in that elevator embrace, we're inclined to understand exactly what it is he's hanging onto, and why he's taken aback when she reacts in shock to what he does next: he's acting outside his natural composition.
Posted by David Lowery at July 3, 2011 3:25 PM