At the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards, Seth Rogen’s opening monologue had a few jokes about Drive, including one that hinged on the incongruity not just of Jewish gangsters, but of Albert Brooks as a Jewish gangster: “Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman were like horrifying in that movie, which was awesome. Seriously, that movie made Jews look so scary I thought Mel Gibson directed it.”

On the one hand, this is a fairly easy trick to pull, because Nicolas Winding Refn shoots Albert in the standard low angle badass framing with an extra dash of Obvious Lighting:

This approach is standard across Drive, with Refn going whole hog for framing that rubs our noses in relationships, such as when Driver goes to Irene’s house:

and when Driver takes Irene and Benicio for a ride, with a before-and-after sense of togetherness made painfully obvious in the one-thing-changed framing that moves Benicio from the back seat to right there with Irene and Driver (in much softer light) in an ersatz family that ramps up the pathos when Standard gets back from prison:

But in the end what makes the violence in Drive so shocking rests in its suddenness and unexpectedness. I can’t think of an Albert Brooks film in which he does anything more physically taxing than jogging. At the end of Defending Your Life he runs to catch the soul/people-mover. Brooks’s star persona guarantees a presence that is intellectual, not physical, which make his killings even more shocking. Refn handles this disconnect in two fascinating ways. In the first killing, Brooks/Bernie goes full Homicide ghetto fork, and the film’s otherwise-careful and studied framing can’t quite “keep up” with the speed of the violence.

Later, when Bernie kills Shannon, he moves quickly and quietly, and even speaks soothingly as Shannon bleeds out. The shot of the fastidious way in which Bernie cleans the murder weapon, and its lack of low angle framing, returns Brooks to his usual role of middle-class professional.

In the climactic showdown between Bernie and Driver, Bernie gets the first stab in, but Driver strikes the killing blow in a scene cut quite similar to the opening pizza-shop murder.

What makes Bernie so scary isn’t that he’s a gangster – Ron Perlman‘s a gangster too, and for all his hulking mass he’s not particularly frightening in a visceral way, Bernie/Brooks is the killer-muscle – it’s that he’s Albert Brooks as a gangster. What would Beatrice Henderson think?

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