Today I watched two movies about drivers: Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive.
Both were pretty good, on the whole. Mona Lisa is a sort of anti-Pretty Woman, and Drive is a slightly more realist answer to glamorous hyper-violent car-centric action films (I’m looking at you, Vin Diesel), but both still manage to suffer from many of the same flaws as the kinds of films they seem to be responding to.
In Mona Lisa, Bob Hoskins’ George is a convict recently released from prison who gets a job driving Simone, an escort, to and from her engagements. The two grow close, and George agrees to help Simone find and rescue a friend of hers from her days on the streets.
For most of the film, George’s interest in Simone seems to be mainly paternal — despite his criminal background, he’s very naive about Simone’s line of work, and a lot of comparisons are made between George’s teenage daughter and the prostitutes he encounters. For a while, I rejoiced to think that, for once, the male lead actually might not fall madly in ill-fated love with the prostitute character. But, sadly, that wasn’t to be. When George finally finds Simone’s friend, Cathy, and the three of them make for Brighton together, George is distressed to learn that Simone might be in love with Cathy, and tries to force her to “show him the sights” on Brighton Pier, angry that he’s put himself on the line for a woman who doesn’t love him back.
What Mona Lisa has in its favor is that it frustrates George’s desire for Simone. He’s trying to follow the familiar script of boy-meets-girl, boy-saves-girl-from-sordid-life, boy-and-girl-live-happily-ever-after, but Simone isn’t having any of it. She’s fond of George, but she’s ultimately just using him. She’s only interested in Cathy, and whether their relationship is sexual or not doesn’t matter, because she’s refusing to play into George’s expectations about her.
But still, I found myself disappointed in George for responding so predictably, and a bit disappointed in the film as well — though I wasn’t really surprised in either case. Although it seems to be trying to resist some of the cliches about prostitutes in film, it’s also falling prey to them at the same time. The very title of the film suggests a woman as object, comparing Simone to the famously enigmatic painting . The mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile is all well and good for Nat King Cole to sing about, but the legend obscures the particular woman who is the subject of the painting. She, like Simone, is no longer a unique individual but a blank space onto which we can project all our own speculation.
Drive also indulges in some over-romanticized mystification. Both Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver and his love interest Irene (Carey Mulligan) are largely archetypal, Irene as the object of desire for the hero, and the Driver as the strong, silent type, the laconic, handsome bad-boy with a mysterious past. I mean, he’s unnamed, for goodness’ sake! How much more generic can you get? Gosling plays this marvelously, giving that cliche some great nuance — for instance, the way he takes his time before answers a question (or sometimes not answering it at all). Their romance is boilerplate at best: virtually no effort is made to indicate what the characters see in one another — though they spend a lot of time together, they hardly say a word to one another, and we have to take their attraction at face value. It works because Gosling and Mulligan have wonderfully warm chemistry, but it also presents a sort of montage version of romance that leaves out all the details of falling in love in favor of an atmospheric suggestion of the idea of love.
In some way, the film resists the typical heist film cliches. It’s hyper-violent but in a way that really emphasizes the horror of that violence, rather than glossing over it for a PG-13 rating, the way most action flicks to. It revels in the seaminess of its milieu, but it also humanizes the stock characters who populate its world, mostly because the film is full of high-caliber actors: Albert Brooks is creepily gentle as a psychotic mobster, and Christina Hendricks imbues her unfortunate accomplice with real pathos.
But while each member of the cast turns in a brilliant performance, the film itself seems to be simply going through the motions. On paper, Drive is entirely cliche. The execution elevates the material, but ultimately it felt to me that the film was simply indulging in those cliches rather than really trying to unpack them.
It felt to me that both of these films were making some kind of effort to complicate the genres to which they belong, but I’m not sure that either one completely succeeded. But maybe that was my mistake, to read these as revisionist takes on the material, rather than simply accepting them as well-made examples of their species.