[As one might expect from an article called “Script to Screen,” this article is a spoilertastrophe for Drive. If you haven’t seen it, don’t read it.]
Let’s get this out of the way first thing: Drive is a terrible script. I don’t usually pay much attention to news and gossip, but it’s hard to avoid when Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, and my beloved Albert Brooks sign on to a script that ranks near the very bottom of the shit heap I’ve read (keep in mind, I read Law-Abiding Citizen, so that’s saying something). “Maybe,” I speculated, “the script has dramatically changed to make it appealing to competent actors.”
It hasn’t, but—get this—I actually liked the movie. They changed the absolute worst thing about the script—a serious, debilitating plot hole—But did I like the movie for what it was, or what it imitated? Because, you see, Drive‘s greatest liability and second-greatest asset (the greatest being the quality of the actors, elevating material far beyond the cheap, B-movie schlock it should have been) is director Nicolas Winding Refn’s self-conscious aping of early Michael Mann. Drive rehashes Thief, both in style and in content (swap out safe-cracking for stunt driving, and it’s basically the same movie), right down to the cursive, hot-pink credits and abuse of low-rent synth-pop.
The thing about Mann, for me, is that he knows how to blend the superficial gloss of contemporary coolness with the grit that permeates…pretty much everything in modern society. The Tangerine Dream score of Thief was not a self-conscious throwback or an attempt to emulate earlier directors. Tangerine Dream was just a few years past its peak popularity, and I’d make the argument that synth-pop evolved naturally from disco by amping up the experimental digital sounds and eliminating actual instruments. Synth-based pop was quickly becoming the Next Big Thing, but Mann heard the darkness and the coldness underneath the peppy veneer and exploited that to create Thief‘s mood. Mann has always used music expertly in his films, but it comes across as both derivative and self-conscious to simply ape choices he made 30 years ago rather than looking at the underlying reasons for those choices and finding a modern equivalent.
That said, the overwhelming majority of Mann’s movies—especially his crime epics—are so fucking good, pilfering his style can only help a bad script. One could argue that makes Drive style over substance, but Refn steals Mann’s style expertly. Ignoring all the self-consciousness (like the dingy, ’80s aesthetic of “Driver”‘s apartment), Refn creates the cinematic equivalent of highway hypnosis through the motion (or lack thereof) of his camera and expert sound design, lulling us into a false sense of calm until the relentlessly—almost comically—violent second half.
Here’s the story, as told in the script: “Driver” (no name—deep, huh?) is a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic by day, and an expert wheelman by night. His partner, Shannon (played in the movie by Bryan Cranston, a hell of a performance that proves again how phenomenal he is—Watley!), is sort of a low-rent sleaze bucket who jokes about exploiting Driver to mask the fact that that’s exactly what he does. He’s in bed with shady Hollywood schlockmeisters and not-as-dissimilar-as-one-might-think two-bit Mob bosses, but he’s a drunk and a gambler, and he needs Driver to fuel his addictions (but, like most addicts, it’s still not enough). Driver’s the best in the business, and he splits everything with Shannon, 50-50.
There’s an idea that they might go straight, although like most things in the script, that’s never entirely clear. Shannon pursues a stock car purchase with the help of Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, in an amazingly menacing performance that manages to combine the look of an eyebrowless Brian Wilson with the cheerful psychopathy of any Joe Pesci character). Shannon thinks they can make a fortune hustling on small circuits; after Bernie sees Driver do his thing, he agrees. His hot-headed partner, Nino (Ron Perlman), who’s actually Bernie’s brother but pretends to be Italian for criminal credibility, is less keen on the idea.
Meanwhile, Driver takes notice Irina (changed to “Irene” in the film because they cast lily-white Carey Mulligan instead of a fiery Latina), a struggling single mother down the hall. He befriends her, and her young son Benicio, and slowly begins to assert himself into their lives. Before it can go too far, Irina’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac, another great performance from an actor I’ve never seen before), gets released from prison. He was in the joint for unsuccessfully robbing a savings and loan. When Driver comes home to find Standard beaten to a bloody pulp, he takes an active interest.
Here’s where the cheesy conspiracy comes in: Standard knows Driver’s an ex-con, so he invites him to join on a “sweet score” he’s lined up. See, he’s racked up some debts in prison, and one of his old criminal buddies has alerted him to a can’t-miss bank heist. Driver accepts the opportunity and spends the next few days planning the vehicle and escape route. The four-person heist initially goes off without a hitch: Standard and his partners, Cook, Blanche, and Dave hold up the bank, demand to go to a particular safe deposit box, and retrieve a money-filled duffel bag. Outside, a guard gets the drop on Standard and Dave—killing them both—while Cook, as part of the plan, pretends to be a hostage. Driver narrowly escapes with Blanche and the money, but they’re pursued by a sports car. Driver outruns it and takes Blanche to a cheap motel to plan their next move.
Driver realizes Blanche was in on the setup, which she admits, but she insists nobody was supposed to get hurt. The plan was to just take the money, so Cook could have it all instead of splitting it with Standard and Dave. An assassin arrives at the motel and kills Blanche. Driver manages to kill the assassin and flee. Driver and Shannon ask Bernie for help tracking down Cook. Bernie tells them Cook is a dangerous man, but he tells them where he’s located—a strip club he owns. Driver goes to the club, prepared to beat the hell out of Cook, but he realizes Cook has already been beaten. He knows Cook isn’t the mastermind, so he takes Cook’s phone and dials a number called repeatedly from his phone. When he tells the voice on the other end that he has their $3 million, he’s connected to the boss—Nino [dramatic sting!].
Cook and Nino explain the situation to Bernie, who is furious. Nino tells him the money belongs to an East Coast mobster who intended to set up a rival operation in L.A. Nino explains Shannon and Driver—the only two left alive who know about their operation—must die, in order to keep anyone from finding out Nino’s involvement in the robbery. Bernie reluctantly agrees to that; he goes to Shannon in search of Driver. Shannon won’t give him up, so Bernie kills him. In retaliation, Driver kills Nino and his thugs. Finally, Bernie agrees to meet with him and exchange the money. He seems very pragmatic, almost polite about the situation—but when Driver reaches for the duffel bag, Bernie sticks him in the gut with a switchblade. Driver snatches the switchblade and slits Bernie’s throat. Clearly dying, Driver takes his stolen car to the airport, locks the money in the trunk, steals another car, and calls Irina with instructions on how to find the money. He drives off toward Mexico, but he probably won’t make it.
So there you go. That’s Drive, the script—condensed version. I left out some of the more awful decisions—like Driver deciding Standard’s funeral is a great time to tell Irina that he was involved with the robbery—so maybe you’ll have to take my word on how truly bad the writing is.
Or maybe you won’t, if you noticed the massive plot hole. What’s that? You didn’t? Well, let me explain it to you: Standard was killed in a bank heist. This has become public knowledge, but even if it hadn’t, you’d think some mobsters would realize that. There’s an implication—emphasized to much greater effect in the finished film—that Driver does what he does to protect Irina and Benicio. Yet, in the end, he gives them the money—under the guise of giving them a better life. How much better will their life be once the Mob realizes the wife of the only publicly identified man involved in the robbery suddenly moves to a nice neighborhood and sends her son to a private school, despite working as a waitress at a cheap diner? Maybe it’ll be better for a few months, at which point it will abruptly end. It’s pure idiocy.
Worse than anything in the script, though, is the dialogue. In my coverage, I described it as “atypically atrocious”—and that’s meaningful. Usually, the only thing a screenwriter can do is write pithy dialogue. They can’t construct a story to save their lives, they create characters like they’ve never interacted with another human being before, but the dialogue is usually, at its very worst, serviceable. Not so in Drive, which boasts scenes like this:
He’s great with kids…
It helps that they’re the same age…
Irina grins, taking a look at his handsome face.
How long have you known him?
Since I was eighteen. I’d just arrived in LA, living out of a beat-up Ford. He gave me a job and a place to stay.
(Sensing the affection in his voice)
Sounds like you owe him?
He’d never see it that way.
But you do?
Up ahead, Shannon’s introducing Benicio to some of the CAMERA CREW, making a fuss over him.
He told me you wanted to be a race car driver. I didn’t know if he was joking.
Oh, he’s serious.
How about you?
I’d like to give it a try but in my experience the things you set your heart on don’t always work out.
You believe that why’d you move to the city of dreams?
I used to dream about coming here when I was in Salvador. I think I got it mixed up with New York or something on the TV. I
imagined it was all these big skyscrapers and you could walk everywhere.
You move here with your husband?
No, I met him in LA. At a party. A week later I was pregnant with Benicio…
(Feeling a little guilty for running her husband down)
He had all kinds of plans then, a catering business, a restaurant franchise. Every idea someone else got there first…
Shannon interrupts, calling out to them.
Come on, boys and girls, keep up…
He points them towards a warehouse, guiding Benicio inside.
The finished version of Drive is almost a master class in how to take bits and pieces of a terrible script and turn it into a decent film. Based on the draft I read, I have sincere doubts that Hossein Amini accomplished this on his own, which makes this one of the increasingly rare cases where the collaboration of cinematic craftsmen actually improves the finished product. The usual result I see is a good script gone bad or a bad script made worse. The scene above does not appear in the movie, but an altered version of Standard and “Irene”‘s first meeting appears. However, instead of trading horrible, on-the-nose dialogue, Standard is allowed to tell the story from his point of view. It’s a jokey anecdote with a pretty good punchline. It doesn’t feel quite so on the nose the way he tells it, and furthermore, the story isn’t just randomly blurted out—Standard tells the story of how “Mommy and me” met to Benicio, in front of Driver, because he’s jealous of Driver’s presence in his wife and son’s lives and wants to make a passive-aggressive point that he’s the husband and father.
Overall, the film takes a less-is-more approach to the dialogue. Driver is much more taciturn, and Gosling plays the character as a blank-faced cipher. In some ways, that’s an annoying choice, but it works here because Gosling recognizes Driver is a sociopath. The difference between right and wrong never enters into the equation for him; he just does what he does, and the reason why is never entirely clear—but that’s the advantage of a sociopathic lead: it doesn’t have to be clear. He doesn’t have to have a reason better than “Shannon told me to.” The script hammers Driver’s loyalty to Shannon hard, and it makes him look like an idiot because Shannon is clearly a two-bit hoodlum. Gosling’s take on the character wouldn’t be able to make those kinds of judgment calls.
This could have created some problems with the romantic subplot, but both Gosling and Mulligan wisely underplay the emotions. Irene is understandably uncertain about this man, who rarely speaks and doesn’t seem terribly interested or present. The attraction is there, but it’s a star-crossed romance that the actors and Refn make the most of. They also excised the retarded plot hole of an ending, leaving Irene’s life pretty much back where it started—poor, but safe.
It’s Standard whose character makes the biggest change between script and screen. In the script, he’s incredibly generic. Irina spends far too much of her dialogue explaining why she’d stay with a guy like him, because to do so clearly doesn’t fit the character. The film never reveals what landed him in the joint and removes the notion that he amassed debts in prison. At his release party, he apologizes sincerely and sadly to the friends and well-wishers who have gathered. He’s forced into the robbery by mobsters, to whom he had to pay protection in prison. But he didn’t have money, so now he has to participate in this pawn shop robbery in the hopes of paying his alleged debt. He’s backed into a corner, and Driver offers to help because he knows Standard is in over his head, and he doesn’t want Irene or Benicio to die.
The heist is also dramatically altered, restaged at a seedy pawn shop. Only Blanche (Christina Hendricks, look scary and sort of clownish in sleazy, white-trash makeup) assists in the robbery. She makes it out alive while the pawnbroker blows Standard away. Driver never meets Cook—never even knows who he is—until he beats the information out of Blanche. Aside from the changed ending, the rest of the movie plays out pretty much as it does in the script. It’s a bloodbath, but an effective one.
Speaking of effective moments, Hollywood hacks these days are all about plants and payoffs. They take Chekhov’s gun a little too seriously and make things a little ham-handed. The script spends an obscene amount of time setting up a complicated movie stunt that Driver pulls off successfully. Needless to say, he performs the exact same stunt in real-world conditions during a car chase with Nino and an army of thugs. The film is a little more subdued in both the plant and the Nino “chase”—the film doesn’t spend much time on the stunt, instead focusing a little bit on the eerie latex mask Driver must wear to look more like the film’s star.
In the third act, when he goes after Nino, Driver steals the same mask from the makeup trailer and wears it while he stalks and kills his prey. Maybe dressing up a cool-headed sociopath like Michael Myers is a cheap ploy, but it’s effective. Gosling is a great actor, but he’s not particularly threatening—especially not in this role. In the mask, without any sense of his face or eyes, he’s menacing as hell. It really makes the whole sequence work.
Speaking of menacing presences, let me talk about Albert Brooks for a second. After shitting all over his critically acclaimed novel, I was surprised to hear he got cast as Bernie Rose. He doesn’t work very much, so it struck me as odd when he took a role in a crime drama. Was this another attempt by Refn to imitate Mann by casting an actor known mainly for comedy (like Jim Belushi in Thief and Andrew “Dice” Clay in Crime Story) in a supporting role? Don’t know, don’t care. I only know this: Brooks is fucking scary. He is not comic relief, though he does get a couple of good laughs. Have we lost Brooks, the brilliant comedian, and gained Brooks, the fierce prophet? Either way, I’ll take him, though next time, I hope he has eyebrows. (Seriously, I’ll feel bad if he had cancer or something—it’s just that the lack of eyebrows make him look even scarier, and I love that nobody mentions it.)
Vastly superior to its shitty script, Drive is a surprisingly good film. The violence is intense and graphic, and needlessly so, but I’m pleased to report that not every bad script turns into a worse movie. I’m still shocked and annoyed that anyone in Hollywood paid good money for a script as bad as what I read, however.