(Update: On the occasion of Drive’s theatrical release, I have reworked and updated this review here.)

(Update #2: Having seen the film a second time and having had some time to more fully consider it, I have to admit that Drive is a much better film than I give it credit for in these two reviews. Check out my further thoughts and an upgraded star rating here.)

Based on the 2006 novel by James Sallis, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive wants to be kind of a western/action/noir hybrid with a nameless laconic hero who cruises into town and selflessly saves a pretty woman and her son from the forces of evil with potentially deadly consequences for himself. That’s the intention anyway, but despite a lot of early promise, it never quite comes to life.

With expressions ranging from a studied blank to a strange smirk seemingly detached from whatever is happening on screen, Ryan Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic who moonlights as a top notch getaway driver. He’s never named in the film, but in the book and the film’s credits he’s referred to simply as Driver. Driver takes an interest in the girl two doors down (Carey Mulligan) and her son. When her husband (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison, it seems like this is going to turn into an explosive love triangle, but instead the husband runs afoul of a dangerous criminal element to whom he owes money. Believing perhaps that the husband is a decent man who has made some bad decisions and now simply wants to do right by his family, Driver agrees to help him pull off one last score so the husband can buy his freedom. However, nothing ever goes as planned in movies like this and Drive is no exception.

It’s a promising set up, but it never gets out of 2nd gear. In other movies of this sort, the hero/anti-hero’s motives are always clear and distinct even if it’s something as simple as greed or revenge. Refn and Gosling want Driver to be enigmatic, but he winds up a cypher. He clearly takes an interest in Mulligan’s little boy, but there’s nothing else in his character to suggest a fatherly instinct or such altruism and it doesn’t wash.

The narrative is also muddled as though Refn and his screenwriter Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) tried to squeeze in elements from the novel even though the necessarily condensed screenplay can’t support them. The fact he’s a stunt driver is carefully set up, but there’s no real payoff other than to explain why he’s such a skilled getaway man. There’s also a subplot about him joining up with his mechanic boss (a terrific Bryan Cranston) and a shady moneyman (an even better Albert Brooks) in order to become a legitimate race car driver. This is all ultimately folded into the resolution, but mostly it just dangles uselessly and distracts from the momentum of the story.

None of this would matter if the car chase element were stronger. While the action starts promisingly with a suspenseful cat and mouse chase up and down the night time streets of downtown Los Angeles set to an urgently pulsing synthesizer soundtrack (the film is never afraid to draw comparisons to Michael Mann from the music right down to the 80’s pink opening credits), this is really more of a tease. There’s another chase 2/3s of the way through with a bit more in the way of pyrotechnics, but it still doesn’t quite deliver the extended white knuckle thrills of some of the classic car chase movies like Walter Hill’s The Driver (another obvious reference point to Drive) or even the more recent Ronin. The sequences are well shot with a minimum of CGI (it’s seamless if there is any at all) and the confidence to avoid a lot of fancy editing, but that just makes it all the more disappointing there weren’t more of them. Instead of action set pieces, Refn falls back on sudden ejaculations of off-putting violence that don’t really add anything except the same irritating showoff quality that tends to infect all of Refn’s work from Pusher through Bronson to Valhalla Rising.

Drive was originally conceived of as a $60 million film to be directed by Neil Marshall starring Hugh Jackman, but Refn and Gosling were clearly hoping to elevate the genre into some kind of arty abstract expression of… well that’s never exactly clear thanks to the vagaries of Goslings character and performance. Drive finally delivers neither high art nor the low gut punch thrills of a good chase movie. Instead it lands somewhere in the middle and, while it’s not bad, it’s so much less than it could have been.

Drive made its world premiere at the Cannes film festival where it netted awards for director Refn and lead actor Gosling. It made its North American premiere Friday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival and its US theatrical run is planned for September 16.

4 Responses to “LAFF 2011: Drive (2011)”

  1. good review. i’m interested to see it based on some of the Cannes buzz, but I’m not really into this director’s previous films. I’ll go in with moderate expectations.

  2. I’m being a little hard on it because I had high expectations (odd because I didn’t like Bronson at all), but it’s still very much worth checking out unless you’re turned off by graphic bloody violence.

  3. I started the book but haven’t been in the mood for it yet. That said, it looks short and fast. Thin book, huge type (I actually double checked to see if I had the Large Type edition). It definitely looks like a read in one setting book, so I’m wondering if there’s really that much to excise in the adaptation, or if it was just that lean/empty to begin with? Will have to read it myself and see it myself to judge I suppose.

  4. Apparently the original screenplay that had Huge Ackman and Neil Marshall attached to it eliminated the fact he was a stunt driver but Refn put it back in and in general he said he was more faithful to the book.

    I should add that putting that stuff in didn’t exactly detract from the story, but it just felt kind of dangling and unnecessary. Details that weren’t ever really taken advantage of. Maybe if he’d done something unusual and stunty in one of the chases, but he didn’t really.

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m being a hardass because I was disappointed.

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