(This is a reworking of the LA Film Festival review I originally posted back in June. If you’re more into the hastily written snap judgment thing, then by all means enjoy the original instead. If anything, my opinion of the film has dimmed in the intervening months. Part of that comes from having subsequently read the novel, but I have to admit that some of it is a bit of mental push back in response to the internet-fed rapture the film has inspired everywhere I turn – a rapture I don’t quite share.)
(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 slim 2006 knife stroke of a novella by James Sallis, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive tries to thread the needle by making an art film out of a car chase picture. That’s a fine idea except Drive mostly settles for the weaker elements of both genres. The few glorious parts it gets right are diminished by the many parts it gets fatally wrong.
A kind of a western/action/noir hybrid, Drive stars Ryan Gosling as a nameless, laconic hero with a strict personal code who cruises shark-like into the dirty city of Los Angeles where he attempts to rescue a pretty woman with no concern for the harm potentially done to his own person. In the book and in the film’s credits he’s called “Driver” because that’s what he does: He’s a mechanic and a Hollywood stunt driver by day and a getaway driver for hire by night. It’s when one of his capers goes sour that Driver and his girl fall into danger and he must take extraordinary measures to get them both out of it.
This is a simple and effective setup and Refn nicely uses the raw material to pull off a couple of the better action sequences of recent years. It’s just too bad there aren’t enough of them. While the action starts promisingly with a suspenseful cat and mouse chase up and down the nighttime streets of downtown Los Angeles, this opening (with a feel heavily influenced by Michael Mann from the pink ’80s credits to the urgently pulsing synthesizer score) turns out to be really more of a tease. There’s another longer sequence after the halfway point of the movie with more in the way of pyrotechnics, but it still doesn’t quite deliver the sustained white-knuckle thrills of some of the classic car chase movies like Bullitt, Walter Hill’s The Driver, or the more recent Ronin – the kinds of movies Drive so clearly wants to be.
The sequences are well shot with a refreshing minimum of CGI – if there is any at all, it’s blended seamlessly – and the confidence to avoid a lot of fancy editing, but that just makes it all the more disappointing they are so few in number. Instead of action set pieces, Refn tries to inject energy with sudden ejaculations of off-putting violence that have a “look at me” quality and pull you out of the film rather than engage you with it.
Refn it seems is not content with just an action movie. He wants something a lot artier and more meaningful. To that end, the screenplay by Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) fancies up the very straightforward novella and draws together a bunch of its story points. It even crams in a few other needless elements for good measure like a subplot where Driver and his mechanic boss make plans to become a legitimate stock car racing team for a shady money man. The boss and the money man fit in to the story’s overall resolution, but the stock car angle is never justified and it just lays there uselessly like an appendix.
With the pointless additions and cluttered up plot, Driver’s motivations become muddled and indistinct and his character stops making sense. A story like this thrives on a crystal clear motivating factor like greed or revenge or lust, but that’s missing. If Driver’s goal is some kind of jaded altruism, it’s entirely unconvincing and not supported by what we know about the character. This is fatal because what Drive really wants to be is a moody character study yet the man under the microscope is not finally all that interesting.
Ryan Gosling, a handsome and talented actor who sometimes seems to be working too hard to be taken seriously, complicates the whole mess with a performance based entirely on two expressions: a studied blank and a strange smirk detached from whatever is happening on screen. He’s aiming for the super cool and enigmatic Steve McQueen-type anti-hero, but instead he’s just a cipher. You can’t have a character study with a lead who is impossible to read, whose motivations aren’t clear and whose actions often don’t make sense.
As for the rest of the cast, Driver’s love interest Irene (and the movie itself) begs for a little bit of sexiness and mystery and wild-girl danger, but Carey Mulligan can only muster her usual sensible British restraint. Performance-wise, it’s a bit like bringing the proverbial knife to a gunfight. Her part should’ve been played by Christina Hendricks who regularly shines on AMC’s Mad Men, but who is here completely wasted in a tiny, inconsequential part.
On the other hand, it’s nice to see Bryan Cranston – so wonderful and complex on AMC’s Breaking Bad – get a chance to sparkle on the big screen and he takes advantage of the opportunity even in a fairly small part as Driver’s daytime boss. Meanwhile, Ron Perlman (Hellboy) enjoyably chews the scenery as Nino, one of the thugs who wind up gunning for Driver.
The best performance of all though (and the main reason to see the film besides some of the action) is Albert Brooks as the sleazeball money man Bernie Rose. Brooks has played bad before, of course. He was a wonderful creep in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, but there too he played a variation on the insecure, self-effacing comic that defines Brooks’ persona. In Drive on the other hand, he lets loose and embraces his inner scumbag. In the process, he brings an element you don’t generally expect from him: he’s downright dangerous and it’s fun to watch.
Drive was apparently originally conceived of as straight-forward action film to be directed by Neil Marshall starring Hugh Jackman. It might have been better off that way. Refn’s attempt to elevate the genre into an arty abstraction is sound, but it remains a mystery what Drive is intended to express. It’s a Rorschach test with the audience left to supply its own meaning for the pretty shapes on screen. Delivering neither high art nor enough of the low gut-punch thrills of a good chase movie, Drive instead parks somewhere in the middle and it’s not a very interesting place to be.
3 stars (out of 5)
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