Two recent movie thrillers, though stylistically and thematically a study in contrasts, deal with a theme as old as Greek tragedy: protagonists facing life-and-death dilemmas borne of their own actions. The lead characters act out of expediency or misguided benevolence, and end up paying dearly for their choices.
Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive presents a near-perfect example of a world that exists only in film noir. Because of its state-of-the-art car chases, it has been compared to Bullitt, but its sleek, mostly nocturnal milieu reminds me far more of Michael Mann's supercharged thrillers—Manhunter, Thief, Heat, Miami Vice. It has all the cool existential chic George Clooney and Anton Corbijn strove for in The American, but didn't quite achieve.
Ryan Gosling plays the unnamed protagonist, a movie stunt driver by day and getaway-driver-for-hire at night. We never find out where he came from, how he learned his astonishing driving skills, or why he turns criminal in his off hours. For money? For kicks? The driver's mournful eyes take in everything, and reveal nothing.
The driver's best buddy Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a grizzled auto mechanic who himself dabbles in the underworld, has ambitions of building the world's greatest race car and putting the driver behind its wheel on the professional circuit. To fund the project, he turns to two people he should, if he had any sense at all, be running from: Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a movie producer-turned-mobster, and his thuggish partner Nico (Ron Perlman).
Meanwhile, the driver develops a strong attraction to Irene (Carey Mulligan), a quiet young waitress with a small son. Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. The driver quietly insinuates himself into Irene's life, and their bond grows. However, their idyll ends abruptly when Standard is paroled. (The scene in which Standard and the driver meet, sizing each other up under a mutual guise of friendliness, is a gem.)
One night the driver turns home to find a beaten, bloody Standard in the alley. In prison, Standard got deep in debt to some very bad men, and now those men are insisting he do a big job for them to repay the debt. More for Irene's sake than for Standard's, the driver agrees to help.
And there, to paraphrase Art Spiegelman, is the beginning of all the driver's troubles. It's absolutely no fair to tell you how the story turns around on itself, in ever-widening circles of violence and revenge. It is fair to tell you that the driver must make tough, even draconian choices to save himself and Irene. It is also fair to say you'll see car-chase action as thrilling as any ever put on screen, as well as a body count of Elizabethan proportions.
Visually and aurally, Drive glitters. Refn blends the photography of Newton Thomas Sigel, the editing of Mat Newman, the production design of Beth Mickle and the music score by Cliff Martinez to create a resplendent, repellent tapestry of urban menace. Hussein Amini's screenplay, based on a novel by James Sallis, is a fine example of neo-noir, filled with desperate characters and incisive dialogue. (Talking about the movies he once produced, Bernie says, "One critic said they were European. Personally, I thought they were shit.")
Disappointingly, Drive gives its women characters short shrift. Carey Mulligan is touching as Irene, but her role is totally reactive. (Is it just me, or is Mulligan in this movie a near-twin for Michelle Williams in Ryan Gosling's last movie, Blue Valentine?) The only other noticeable female role goes to Mad Men's Christina Hendricks, and to call the role "noticeable" is being generous. (This is Refn and Amini's fault, not Hendricks'.)
The world of Drive is a man's world, and fortunately the men are worth watching. Just as in Breaking Bad, Cranston makes a compelling loser. Perlman and Brooks are terrifying as the mobsters, but Brooks is the scarier of the two. We aren't used to seeing Brooks as a thug, of course; but even above that, it is marvelous to see how Brooks uses his comedian's timing to underscore his character's murderousness, in the most deadly serious way possible. When Brooks tells Perlman, "Now it's your turn to clean up after me," it's the understatement of the century.
As for Gosling, he knows how to keep the driver interesting even as he keeps him impassive. Who is this character who never smiles, who speaks only when spoken to, who is capable of the greatest tenderness and the most horrifying violence?
Gosling keeps us guessing, and—even more importantly—he keeps us wanting to guess. Just as Drivehas occasioned comparisons with Bullitt, so the film has occasioned comparisons between Gosling and Steve McQueen. But to me Gosling is much more like another great movie tough guy, Robert Mitchum. Gosling of course looks nothing like Mitchum, but he has the same sad hound-dog eyes and vaguely mocking expression, the same casual intensity suggesting unfathomable reserves of intelligence and emotion.
Some of the violence in Drive will make you want to avert your eyes, but thanks to its stylishness and its excellent acting, you'll be glad you went along for the ride.
Whereas Drive is the epitome of Hollywood cool, John Madden's The Debt—based on the Israeli film Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum—deals with agonizing issues of genocide, justice, and retribution, ripped from the bloodiest pages of 20th-century history.
The ads for The Debt stress the presence of Helen Mirren, so most viewers have been disappointed that she is in only the first and last sections of the movie. The movie begins in the 1990s with a celebration in Tel Aviv: the daughter of Rachel Singer (Mirren) and Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) has written an admiring book about her parents, telling the famous tale of how they and their Mossad compatriot David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds) captured and killed the "Surgeon of Birkenau," the Nazi mass murderer Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), thirty years before in Berlin.
So why is David absent from the celebration? And why, shortly thereafter, does he throw himself under a truck?
David's suicide sends the movie back to the bleak, divided Berlin of the 1960s, where Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) unite in a mission to capture Vogel—now working under an assumed name as a gynecologist—and take him to Israel to face justice.
What happens in Berlin is the crux of The Debt, and while it would be churlish to say how the mission turns out, it's probably easy for most viewers to guess. Like any number of past films, from Rashomon to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Debt is very much concerned with the divergence of truth and legend. The Debt, however, is especially concerned with making amends for legend—a task that falls, at the end, to Rachel.
The Debt is meticulously made, with many scenes of white-knuckle suspense. But the movie is at its best in its scenes of confrontation between Vogel and Rachel. The scenes set in Vogel's gynecology office—with Chastain's Rachel masquerading as a patient—ooze with primal horror. No director since David Cronenberg in Dead Ringers has so exploited the suspense potential of a gynecologist's chair.
The performances in The Debt are very good, and better than very good in the cases of Mirren, Chastain, and Christensen. 2011 has been Chastain's miracle year; with the release of Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, and Take Shelter, she has come to prominence as quickly as Meryl Streep before her, and just about as deservedly. Christensen, meanwhile, brings fresh, potent menace to the often-assayed role of the evil Nazi. It's like a punch in the gut when Christensen delivers his most memorable line: "You Jews, you don't know how to live. You only know how to die."
In a year not lacking in good thrillers, Drive and The Debt take their place among the better ones. In their divergent ways, they state afresh the old truths about the best-laid plans of mice and men, and demonstrate once again the connection between character and destiny.