a zoo in hell


Shot/Countershot: Drive & Margin Call

Possible Worlds

There’s an understanding in the film business that hard economic times produce great escapist movies. Whether these films are large-scale musicals, fantasy horror films (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.), or overblown comedy, the film-going public looks for respite in the cinema that they can’t find in real life. In 2011, as America grinds its way out of the recession, like a car stuck in snow drift, just one item of evidence for this pattern continuing is pop culture’s persistent interest in zombies.
There is another concurrent pattern in filmmaking. While the mainstream culture immerses itself in escape, the more independent-minded filmmakers dive into darkness and mine it for meaning or understanding. The post-war era gave us film noir and nouvelle vogue, the tough times of the seventies gave us the hard-nosed filmmaking of Scorsese, Coppola and Peckinpah, and the uncertainty of the late eighties gave birth to the sincere independent film that changed the industry for the next decade.
So, with the recession possibly coming to an end, with America’s longest wars possibly ceasing, and an electoral field filled with blatant charlatans, neo-fascists and vapid opportunists, it comes as no surprise that several films released in the last year can trace their origins to all of these distinctive periods of motion picture history.
The getaway
Drive (2011) suggests an obvious comparison to Taxi Driver (1976). Driver (Ryan Gosling), a taciturn driver who prowls dark urban streets while making some extra cash as a very good “wheel man”, has a raging undercurrent of violence which isn’t well hidden. 
Things get complicated.

"I don't carry a gun, I drive."
However, this is as far as the connections to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) can go. The fundamental questions of character between the men are very different. Bickle is a man in search of a purpose; Driver is a man who is trapped in the role he has fallen into.
Shannon pitches the business idea.
The narrative focus is very different as well. Taxi Driver is unambiguously Travis Bickle’s story, and while the world of Drive orbits around Driver, there are many stories happening at once, stories which happen to collide like many of the classic neo-noir films of the nineties. These divergent and convergent plots play a game with the viewer, presenting them with scene after scene that suggest the film might not be the movie you thought it was a few scenes before. Not so much plot twists as genre twists. When Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) steps into the film as Shannon’s (Bryan Cranston) silent partner, the film acquires a Goodfellas vibe. Shannon’s scheme to enter Driver in the world of professional auto racing has echoes in noir stories about boxers who become entangled in nefarious affairs. Pulp Fiction (1994) shares the same pedigree.
"It's bad luck."
For all the narrative teases contained in the film, the only rule you really need to know is that Driver is in a bad spot. “It’s bad luck,” Bernie Rose says to Shannon as he confronts him about Driver’s whereabouts. Everything in this story is conspiring against Driver. The only time he is in control is when he is behind the wheel. He applies this “swim or die” attitude to his problems, meeting each threat in a simple, direct manner. Driver doesn’t really solve problems, he smashes through them like a movie set barricade.
You can't have an eighties action movie without strippers.

Shortly after Drive was released in theaters, Margin Call (2011) opened in wide release. The film arrived with rave reviews and an all-star ensemble cast, both of which it needed to get crowds interested in a feature film about the financial meltdown. Margin Call is notable for how intensely it presents the human results of abstractions like statistics and risk, this subtext of tragedy pounds underneath every scene like a road-shaking bass rhythm. This is an apocalyptic film without zombies, nukes or plagues, and it is terrifying.
Sam (Kevin Spacey) and Jared (Simon Baker) consider the next move.

Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) is a young turk in a high-power investment firm. He’s smart, hard working, and pretty much a clean-cut guy. He’s even a little geeky, so when a wave of layoffs sweeps through his office and compels Peter’s unexpectedly former boss Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) to hand-off a “very important” flash drive to him, he’s a little breathless. Once he actually figures out the ominous data on the drive, he becomes the center of full-scale corporate red alert.
Meeting at midnight.
Peter is much like Driver in that he is also caught up in a cluster of events that he had no knowing role in creating. Unlike Driver, there is very little he can do to resolve the situation. Peter must serve the many powers tugging at him, and also salvage his job and career. This fourteen-hour trip through a blue and grey-suited Scylla and Charybdis ultimately, if temporarily, improves his career, but leaves him in a more morally clouded position than Driver. 
Driver’s wave of violence is redemptive; in the end he saves two innocent lives and also extricates himself from the criminal forces that surround him. Conversely, Peter’s survival means he is more deeply entrenched with the dubious financial demi-gods around him.
The wonderkids.

Both films bring the viewer into a dreadful vacancy, detachment or desolation where there is no guiding light, no place to rest, and no sense of a greater world outside the spiritual slums the characters occupy. Driver’s world is the work-a-day dusty orange streets and long sodium vapor shadows of nighttime Los Angeles, and Peter’s world is scores of floors above street level. Rather than some lofty palace, Peter’s office is more like a fish bowl perched on a thin column; Peter swims in a world of cold blues, LCD glow, and too-crisp whites.
The fishbowl.

Both Drive and Margin Call share a deliberate pace of editing and photography. For the most part, both films are content to stay back in a wider shot and let the scene unfold within that frame. In Drive, the characters are often pushed so far to the edge of the frame that it is takes some time to take in the entirety of the image. The few times the camera moves any closer than a close medium-shot, it is to indicate a precise detail (slit wrists or financial data), extreme action, or a moment of inner decision (Driver’s contemplation before the onslaught and Peter’s understanding of Eric Bell’s work).
Driver sees one way out.
There is a similar restraint in the editing, as each cut lingers almost to the point of discomfort (an effect that Refn’s film Valhalla Rising exemplifies) and changes only when absolutely necessary. Both films effectively dwell in the moments after moments, the naked liminal time that traditional editing would cut away.
Sarah Roberts (Demi Moore) plans the rest of her life.

The emotional range of the films is limited too; despite all of the turmoil, violence, and fear in both films there is never an eruption of pure emotion, as if this kind of feeling has been compartmentalized outside of the crisis the film deals with. Even Irene’s (Carey Mulligan) breakdown at Driver after he reveals his connection to Standard’s (Oscar Isaac) murder is muted by his distance and stoicism. This hardness permeates both films, for despite Peter’s rookie status, he’s learning fast about the rules of his particular game. He’s always running calculations (not unlike the Spock he played in Star Trek (2009), instead of feeling, and this objectivity gives him the edge in the collapse.
The numbers don't lie.

Sonically, the films have their differences. Drive is saturated with visual references to eighties movies such as To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), and this aesthetic permeates the soundtrack as well. The majority of the film moves along to an often asynchronous synthesizer and drum pop sound that could be lifted from Miami Vice or Beverly Hills Cop (1984). College's song "Real Hero" is used a motif to reinforce Driver’s inner journey (Quite effectively, too, as the ironic implications of “real human being” in the beginning of the film evolve to sincerity by the end). Margin Call, in contrast, is sonically sparse. There’s music in the first act to get things moving, but with the exception of a few orchestral bursts, it is closer to Trent Reznor’s work for The Social Network (2010). Once the second act starts, all music is left behind, this adds power to the empty pauses of conversation and drone of office white noise. Music returns for the denouement, a signal the immediate crisis is over.
Behind the camera, both films share similar histories as well. Zachary Quinto produced Margin Call and got the ball rolling, Ryan Gosling didn’t produce but he did have approval over director once he was attached to the project (After Hugh Jackman wasn’t). Both films share relatively low-budget status, though Margin Call’s budget was about a fourth of Drive’s $13 million dollar cost. Neither of these are the $30 Million “independent films” which have changed, for the worse, the entire genre.
Who's expendable?
Drive and Margin Call are certainly not twins or siblings of any sort, but they are in tandem. The grime of Drive is the result of the acumen on display in Margin Call. Here’s where the trickle-down theory really works its magic; the shadowy ethics of wall street sharks settle as a razor blade opening a vein in a dirty garage in Los Angeles. 

Zach and Will prepare for the fire sale.
Blanche (Christina Hendricks) and Driver watch the heist go south.
Yet, the personal trajectories of the individuals are just the opposite. The ensemble of Margin Call, with the exception of a few, is doing everything they can to survive individually and perhaps protect the company along the way. They surrender common good to save their own skins; comfortable that anyone would do the same in their situation. Meanwhile, down in the gutter, Driver is sacrificing his life for something larger than pragmatism.
Nino asks Shannon how his legs are healing.
For all the exploration of lost hope, failed ethics and questionable choices, the films also share a willingness to suspend total judgment of its players. Each person in Drive has their own personal code, and within the world of Margin Call, their own well-formed philosophies justify their actions. 
"When did you start getting so soft?" asks John Tuld (Jeremy Irons).
Drive’s antagonists are slightly less cerebral, although Bernie offers an explanation for how he fell from sleazy producer to affiliate of local mobster Nino (Ron Perlman). So, while Drive clearly draws a visual and story connection to the duplicity of film noir and neo-noir, Margin Call has much in common with the existential uncertainty of that kind of filmmaking. In it’s own way, Margin Call asks the same question as a noir; what is “good” in such a fallen and corrupted world?
The kiss.
Of course, these films are gems in a year of disappointing films, a year where even the would-be blockbuster escapist films fell far short of the high standards of the past. However, these two films bravely “own” the emotions of the second decade of the 21st century. Like Peter and Driver, audiences are caught in a whirlwind mostly caused by forces beyond their control. The best response, or maybe the only response, is a determination to see the end of the ordeal. Between the two films we can find a way of seeing the collapse around us, and while neither film tells us how it all ends, they point the way to a sense of the possible endings, the possible futures, which are so terribly far from view.
Something is dying.

- T.A. Wardrope, 11.20.11