“Bronson” and “Drive”: A case study in “interesting” cinema

by Sonny Bunch on February 5, 2012

Jailhouse Art Teacher: Very interesting, Charlie.
Charles Bronson: Interesting?
JAT: Yeah, it’s interesting.
CB: And what does that mean?
JAT: Interesting’s good! Bravado! You know? Yeah, you can’t pin it down. You can’t tie that up in a nice little bow.

Bronson, 2008

Bernie: I used to produce movies. In the 80s. Kind of like action films. Sexy stuff. One critic called them European. I thought they were shit.

–Drive, 2011

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson might not be a good movie. Indeed, it might actually be a bad movie. Centered around a famous British criminal (played to excess, masterfully, by Tom Hardy) who spent 30 years in solitary confinement due to his violent tendencies, the movie is episodic, nihilistic, and stylistically confused, alternating between pseudo-Kubrickian sterility and vaudevillian excess. The soundtrack mixes classic music with retro-sounding synthpop, giving the whole enterprise a weird sheen of era-non-specificity.

But Bronson is certainly an interesting movie — the sort of film that might divide critics (it was 70% fresh among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes) but will definitely make them pay attention. “Well, you don’t see that every day” is the cliched reaction, but it’s accurate: stylistically and tonally, it’s different. Ten percent will put it on their top ten list and ten percent will put it on their bottom ten list. Its difference in a sea of bland, unending sameness at the multiplex makes it stand out.

At least it does to those who watch three to five movies a week for a living. General audiences? They tend to not much care about “interesting” cinema. And when they do show up — as they did to a certain extent for Refn’s far superior Drive, another “interesting” movie — well, sometimes they get upset. (Some spoilers of Drive follow.)

Drive is best described as a tone film. At times, it feels like an experiment in the ability of a director to propel the film’s narrative by using as little dialogue, and as many meaningful glances, as possible. The soundtrack helps set the mood, alternating between minimalist, techno-y beats reminiscent of a ticking clock that underscore the almost mechanical nature of our lead, The Driver (Ryan Gosling), and synth-pop ditties that cement the burgeoning attraction between he and his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan).

The Driver is a car guy, performing stunts during the day, working in his buddy’s repair shop when he’s not on set, and serving as a getaway driver for hoods who need someone to navigate the streets of Los Angeles after a heist. Like Frank Martin in The Transporter series, he has rules: He’ll sit outside the score for five minutes, no more, no less; he doesn’t sit in on a job; and he doesn’t carry a gun. Unlike Frank Martin, there’s no trace of humor in our Driver — and more than a hint of psychopathy. Though tender with Irene and her son Benicio (to the point that he’s willing to take on a job, gratis, to help settle a debt for Irene’s ex-con husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac)), The Driver is capable of shocking, unsettling acts of violence. When the switch flips, you don’t want to be the target of his rage. Just ask a pair of Jewish gangsters, played by Ron Perlman and an excellent Albert Brooks, who decide The Driver has to go when Standard’s heist goes sideways.

For a movie about a getaway driver, Refn eschews showing much in the way of car chases. This isn’t The Fast and the Furious. It’s not even Ronin, the thinking man’s Fast and Furious. It’s more like 2 Fast, 2 Furious as imagined by Brian DePalma — sure, you’ll get a car chase, but only if you submit to lingering slo-mo reaction shots and 80s pop and buckets of viscera. This is a mood movie, remember? It’s not an action flick.* It’s interesting cinema.

*I’m actually very slightly sympathetic to those who sued the production company for false advertising, if only because you should know better than pulling a bait and switch with the masses when it comes to their entertainment choices. That being said, the lawsuit was obviously stupid and the lawyer who took up their case should be disbarred for hucksterism.

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