I often gauge a film’s strength by how close it falls to its ideal position on the impressionism/exposition continuum. At the most extreme point on the exposition end of the spectrum lies motion picture work that is almost exclusively concerned with dispensing information. The nightly news, CNN, and the weakest documentary films––these are projects where content reigns supreme and there is little or no effort made to create a visceral experience for the audience. This work is closer to news, not art, and there is little room for the viewer to meet what he is watching with his own experience.
On the other extreme of the spectrum lie the most abstract and impressionistic films where only a bare minimum of information is provided, and sometimes not even that. This is the realm of poetry, not prose, with spare dialogue and sometimes only the faintest thread of exposition. It’s unclear what lies at the outer reaches of that extreme because so few films dare to go there. In the canon of less obscure cinema, the work of Andrei Tarkovsky probably comes closest. Blade Runner and Days of Heaven, both of which I’ve written about previously, are examples of mainstream films that have dared to tread into these satisfying waters, albeit only knee-deep. Rare is the American film willing to go deeper.
Every film has an ideal place on this continuum, and it’s rare to find a film that hits it on the nose. Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, with sublime photography by Newton Thomas Sigel, comes very close. It is patient, hypnotic and deliciously austere in its design, to the degree that feels as though the narrative serves the photography, and not the other way around. Los Angeles has been vilified in American culture for so long that it is refreshing to see a film that celebrates the city’s beauty, a beauty that is so deeply rooted in the automobile experience. There are car chases, sure, and they are exciting, but the film isn’t about these moments so much as the compulsion to move, the need to pause, and the impossibility of doing so. Refn’s success in creating an environment that supports this tension, especially through scoring and sound design, is masterful, though there are still elements of narrative hand-holding that I find frustrating. They are frustrating because they are unnecessary: economy is the goal with narrative, not coddling, and not everything must be explained to the audience.
All in all: 8.3 out of 10.