Refn's film is based on a novel by James Sallis and centers around a lonely figure who is defined largely by his exceptional driving skills. His persona is so mysterious and lonely, in fact, that the audience is never interred as to his actual name.
The mysterious nature of The Driver's identity is only revealed by his actions -- he works as a quiet mechanic by day and does side work as a stunt driver in films -- and he explores a darker side of society by working as a heist driver on occasion. When one of his "jobs" goes wrong after a botched robbery, he becomes a wanted man who must also protect the object of his affection, Irene (played by Carey Mulligan).
And, this is where my heart breaks a bit. Obviously, I really enjoyed this film. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I went to a friend's house the very next day and pled with friends to watch it with me again. We had a good time, and the running dialogue that we contributed was a lot of fun. After I got home, I decided to research it further in order to get a better sense of how Refn cultivated such a fine work. What I read, however, regarding his casting for the film was unsettling and confusing.
In my opinion, the casting signaled a lost opportunity for widespread visibility regarding the Latino community in film. Here's the A/V Club interview text that triggered my musings:
And of course, the biggest strange situation was Carey Mulligan, because in the book, she is Latina, because he moves into a Latino area.Um, well, okay...that's kind of a big detail. So why did Refn change it? Part of the reason, he says, is his view of the love story as an element of the storyline:
The movie needed the love story to be everything. It needed to be the heart of the movie. I was casting a lot of men and a lot of fantastic actresses, but in my mind, the way it had worked out, I just couldn’t get it to click. I’m a fetish person. I make films based on what I would like to see, not always understanding it, but what I would like to see.Oh. It took awhile to really get to what Refn thought about this glaring shift in casting, which I think is a bit different than, say, changing a scene to exaggerate an emotion or manipulating the order of the narrative in a film in order to be as effective as a novel, given the usual two-hour running time for viewing. According to the Wikipedia entry regarding Refn's casting, in which the actual Press Kit was cited, this is how the director summed up his decision:
Despite having never seen any of her films, Refn was sufficiently convinced by her talent and felt compelled to cast her in Drive. After making changes to both the script and character to accommodate her, he believed that it would ultimately enhance the romantic element of the story: "It made it more of a Romeo & Juliet kind of love story without the politics that would in this day and age be brought into it if you had different nationalities or different religions."The quote also appeared in a Screened.com interview...but, I still really hoped it wasn't true. Then, I found it and was totally dismayed!
I checked around to see if perhaps a Latino voice would arise with a similar concern. The A/V Room's Latino Review section offered a thoughtful analysis, which did touch upon the issue of race relations, but did not ruminate upon the somewhat insulting reason behind Refn's decision to leave out an interracial love story. And while it can be argued that Stardard Gabriel's (played by Oscar Isaac) presence as Irene's husband -- who returns home after serving time for robbery -- offers a character for audiences to understand beyond his crimes and as an unwittingly cheated (and very devoted) spouse. I agree with this argument but it's also proof that Refn was willing to place at least some level of cultural politics into the narrative. Furthermore, as the Latino Review pointed out, the main villain, Nino (played by Ron Perlman) is a Jewish mobster that voices strong racialized emotions at one point:
The dilemma of Perlman’s Nino is quite interesting in the fact that he wishes to stand apart from the east coast mob who look down upon his Jewish heritage, but his work should be at the level of Brooks since their characters are business partners. Perlman comes across as a bully with thugs who do his work for him, not a real threat.Nino's dilemma is revealed at a moment during which his accomplices discuss just how big of a mess they've created by robbing another mobster. As a way of explaining why he must kill Gosling's character and clean up the mess, he eventually rests his actions as a way of standing up to the racist East Coast mobsters that he feels disrespected by at times.
It appeared to me, as I sat engrossed, that race was not a topic that was completely off the table. It's a shame that Refn chose not to extend his Sundance Film Festival standing ovation-worthy skills to the subject of interracial romance, which is understood by many (including myself) as a passionate and brave endeavor that fits perfectly alongside Romeo and Juliet. There are loads of great Latina actors (Rosario Dawson, for instance) and yet-to-be-discovered Latinas that would have supported this film just as well.
What's funny is that Refn criticized Lars von Trier's miscalculated joking about Nazis and Hitler in a Cannes Interview article (just sayin'). I'll still enjoy viewing this film, and rocking out to the excellent soundtrack, but I'll always be a little disappointed that the love story changed.