Geoff Pevere: Drive and the 3-Chord Principle

A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking to a group about the bruised and dented state of the movie reviewing profession, when the inevitable question came up: “Why has Hollywood run out of ideas?”

That’s not exactly how it was put, but the sentiment provoking it was something I’d been hearing ever since, as a paid moviegoer, I first opened the floor to questions and comments. Hollywood has been in decline since before I can remember, and it’s last truly new idea went up in smoke with Kane’s Rosebud.

When I hear the question now, I always wonder if the questioner is a music fan, because I doubt it. If you love pop music, you’ve likely long ago had to make your peace with formula. Otherwise, you would have stopped listening. Formula, which is to say the creative assembly of a limited amount of fixed elements into a pleasing arrangement, is not only the basis of pop music but its art. As Keith Richards once so famously noted, it isn’t those three chords that count, it’s where you put them.

Commercial movies, and maybe just about any popular medium that’s based in genre, are governed by the three chord principle. The art isn’t in the elements but in their arrangement. When we feel Hollywood is showing signs of bankruptcy – and God knows it has – it’s usually not because we’re tired by the chords themselves. They’re just being played the same way over and over. What we crave are fresh arrangements.

Drive, the movie by the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn which casts Ryan Gosling as a professional getaway driver (and daytime movie stunt wheelman) who collides fatally with a brick wall spray-painted with destiny – he assists in a robbery that rips off some exceedingly nasty people – is an often stunningly successful example of the principle. On the surface of things – and the movie’s surface plays like a sleek, ’80s-era Michael Mann movie against a throbbing techno backbeat – there is absolutely nothing new here at all. We’ve seen the movie about the getaway driver as existential hero before (check out Walter Hill’s 1978 neo-noir The Driver  for starters), and we’ve even seen the movie about the getaway driver who gets in over his head before: such first-wave film noir classics as Criss Cross and Raw Deal come screeching to mind. We’ve felt the glossy, vertiginous glass-canyon urban vibe before, and been previously pumped by the Giorgio Moroderesque coke-jangle soundscape. Mostly, we know the driver – who is not named, and is played by the long-faced Ryan Gosling as something of a fine-tuned, quietly lethal vehicle in himself – is headed for the big void. And we know this because everything else I’ve just described sets up a context in which there are no more clean getaways. From the opening sequence, in which the driver demonstrates his cat-like automotive  prowess on an after-dark warehouse job, Refn establishes that we’re in deepest downtown Doomsville. Our man will be called upon to choose between his life and his code, and the only way there’s a choice in that is if you’ve recently crash-landed on the planet from another solar system and never seen a movie before. Drive is as savvy an example of retro-fitted film noir as I’ve seen since maybe David Fincher’s Zodiac,  Cronenberg’s A History of Violence or The Coens’ No Country For Old Men, and as anybody who’s been peering into those shadows for any time can tell you, noir is about fate. The fix is in long before you joined the game, and the only thing that remains to be seen is how gracefully you play the game anyway. Ultimately, it’s a matter of style over circumstance.

There was much I loved about Drive. The secondary cast is impeccably assembled and profoundly effective, especially Bryan Cranston as the driver’s crippled father-figure mechanic boss and Albert Brooks – yes, that Albert Brooks – as a Jewish gangster so steeped in world-weary resignation he thinks he’s doing the people he kills a favour, and even does so with the tools – a collection of designer straight razors – proper to a merciful exit from a shitty world. One exceedingly chilly dude, needless to say.

There is also the movie’s abiding tone of aquarium-like hardness, transparency and stillness, which only makes the bursts of violence – sudden, jolting and truly scary – that much more shattering. This may be a violent movie, and it may take violence as its subject and it’s defining generic spectacle, but it does not take violence lightly. Violence bears down like a suffocating atmospheric force in Drive, and the ultimate irony that slams home to our – can this be the word? — ‘hero’ is the realization that the very violence at which he is so lethally and almost absurdly adept is exactly what dooms him to live in almost total isolation. Like dozens of film noir and just as many dozens of westerns, Drive demonstrates what happens when a killer – even one who kills for our side – tries to come in from the jungle and take a seat at the dinner table. A lone wolf might be a romantic ideal, but he’s alone for good reason.

Yes, I knew all this going in. Knew from the opening moments where Drive was going and the route it was going to take to get there. But the passage there was spectacular. So I guess that’s always my response to that question about why Hollywood has no original ideas anymore. It never has really, and that’s not it’s business. Commercial movies almost always take us places we’ve been before. What we pay for might be escape, but what we cherish isn’t the destination. It’s the ride.

We now have an email address where all of us here at Don’t Believe a Word I Say can be contacted: use it to ask questions, tell us what you’d like to read about, links you’d like to share, and let us hear what you have to say.

Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and pop culture for over thirty years. He just can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

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