(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)

27 Responses to “Drive (2011)”

  1. This has never been a genre I’ve warmed up to, though of your reference points, BULLITT is a film of rightful esteem for more than one reason. I do indeed vaguely remember your original review months back, and well understand that the test of ultimate quality can at least in part be measured by time. When you say early on in this exceptionally penned review that THE DRIVER is basically a ‘chase picture trying to be an art film’ you remind me of another film I saw recently at Tribeca, a French thriller with similar failed aspirations called POINT BLANK. That one is more of the conventional chase picture that tries to have it both ways. Anyway, Gosling has become an actor whose every picture is worth a look-see, and it’s a nice surprise to know that Albert Brooks is in top form.

    I love your last sentence! Nice.

  2. ….and yet, Craig, and yet. Almost as an after-thought I checked oput the reviews ahead of the 9/16 opening and lo and behold it weems everyone is foaming at the mouth. LOL. It’s tough to find even a mediocre review, much less a bad one. But be rest assured I am not holding a flag for that group, as I am neither a fan of this type of picture, nor attempts to artistically legitimize commercial fare. I don’t say that there aren’t a fair number of multiplex films that click – a fact we both know – but there are far more Brighton Rocks than there are Bridesmaids. I applaud you for not making concessions, even while acknowledging what you felt worked in the film.

  3. I liked Point Blank! Conventional, yes, but several steps above the ordinary I thought and 100% less pretentious than Drive.

    As for the reviews, yes, they’re mostly glowing. David Edelstein and Glen Kenny are the only significant detractors I see around.

    Mind you, I still kind of like the movie. The stuff that works, works, and it looks good. I just have to smack my forehead when I see people pencilling it into their top 10s for the year.

  4. I can’t deny that both Lucille and I were extremely entertained with POINT BLANK. I should really be judging it far more in that direction than be fussing over issues that malign but hardly diminish films of this kind. It was the very first Tribeca film of the festival and I was being very harsh.

    I agree that it seems that some are going overboard with DRIVE.

  5. That’s the thing about film festivals. I think we tend to go in with loftier, more high-brow expectations. Point Blank is definitely not an art movie. It’s a thriller through and through.

  6. I have to admit — I cannot wait to see this film on Saturday. But I can see all of the things you point out as being potential pitfalls for the type of film this one appears to be.

    I also think some of the early word was so effusive (of course with the big O-word batted around), that the actual product can’t be that momentous. With all that in mind, I’m trying to keep my expectations in check. If the action sequences are half as good as I’ve been hearing, and there’s any semblance of character development at all, I’ll be very happy.

  7. Go in with modest expectations and you just might find the thing in it that I found missing and it’ll be your movie of the year. If it turns out I’m full of shit, I hope you’ll come back to this thread and rub it in my face.

    I’ll be curious to know too if it plays differently for me a second time.

  8. who’s gonna tell you when
    it’s too late
    who’s gonna tell you things
    aren’t so great
    you can’t go on
    thinking nothing’s wrong
    who’s gonna review Drive for you tonight

  9. Yeah, I hate being “that guy” who crosses his arms and puts his foot down and petulantly calls BS on the thing that everyone thinks is awesome. But there it is.

  10. Having your own clear and thoughtful take on a film, regardless of how much it conforms with general critical opinion, is something to take pride in. Far more often than not I agree with your appraisals of movies but I also enjoy discussing the differences when they occur.

  11. for whatever reason, I get a charge out of loving things everyone else dislikes more than disliking things everyone else loves.

    Having said that, I’m at peace with my opinion here and I fully expect it will be conventional wisdom by this time next year :)

  12. sartre, now you’ve done it. That tune will haunt me into the wee hours.

  13. I’m sorry to hear this. This was one I really was looking forward to. I’ve grown to become a big fan of Gosling, but I know this film must be a far cry from Blue Valentine. Perhaps the strong positive words had you going in with very high expectations. I know well that often leaves you flat.

  14. Sorry it took so long to get your comment approved David, I’m on the road today and this is the first chance I’ve had to get online.

    I wouldn’t read too much into this review. I’m sure You’ve looked at Rotten Tomatoes and seen nearly unanimous praise for it. Like you say I think my expectations were possibly over inflated because of the hype after Cannes.
    Even though my review is more negative than most, I still liked the movie. So there’s that.

  15. After a second viewing, I like Driver a teeny bit more. It’s still great in the first half and kind of unwinds in the 2nd half, but both Gosling and Mulligan are better than I gave them credit for and Gosling’s character’s motivations are much more obvious than I remembered.

    It’s still kind of a Michael Mann ripoff that makes me just want to watch Michael Mann and it still needed one more bigger action sequence.

  16. I dug it, but yeah, it’s a total wannabe Michael Mann 80s movie. I couldn’t tell if the gangster scenes between Brooks and Pearlman were meant to be funny or not, but I thought they were pretty lame. Still, I enjoyed the vibe, the music, the cool set pieces and the ridiculous amount of slo-mo. It’s a stylish, entertaining movie. Nothing more.

  17. Had it upped the entertainment factor a bit, I’d have been more into it. But yeah, stylish and entertaining.

  18. I saw much more David Lynch in this than I did Michael Mann (and Frederick Elmes and Angelo Badalamenti for that matter). In any case for me this is a five-star masterpiece, and one of the best films of the year, an existential, expressionistic mood piece with remarkable directiopn and pacing and a deep sense of urgency and inevitablity tinged with a deep melancholia.

    The violence is intense and often stomach turning, but there’s a purpose here; I always argued that Mann was all style over substance, in this film style and substance are wed superlatively.

    Gosling and Brooks are brilliant, and Mulligan is engaging, but the unsung hero of the piece is composer Cliff Martinez whose score is nothing less than electrifying, utilyzing some foreboding new age themes with terrific songs.

    Utterly remarkable direction by Nicholas Winding Refn, who used slow motion to profound and mesmerizing effect throughout. I think he should teach a course on how to use this technique meaningfully.

  19. I don’t know if I see much substance in this movie. I’d say this is a stylistic exercise first and foremost, and it works because Refn does it very well. At least that’s what I enjoyed about it. It’s just a cool movie. I definitely feel like Refn watched “Thief” a few times and borrowed some ideas from that movie. Not that it’s a bad thing. I liked it.

  20. Ari, what you say here is more than fair enough. For me it worked as well as it did, because of a deep emotional undercurrent and some serious visual poetry. I have a history of falling for that kind of thing. The substance here for me was more of an abstract thing. But I know and realize this one will bring in a variety of views and sensibilities. Obviously you liked this one substantially, and I’m happy to know this.

  21. Just saw it. My immediate impression– oh, for fuck’s sake. My slightly less immediate impression– handsomely shot and framed, good lighting but a rather boring color palate (those pink credits made me wish that color were in the film itself), hyperindulgent in homage to 80’s cinema and Mann especially (really, that supermarket scene was a little on the nose, wasn’t it?), but what kills it is threefold. It’s overly reliant on a threadbare, nauseatingly sentimental story between Gosling and Mulligan, who spend the movie doing their best impressions of store mannequins exchanging meaningful glances and pregnant pauses, and between the two of them might share about the same amount of dialogue as Arnold Schwarzenegar in “The Terminator”. It tries to stretch that hand-me-down three-hanky crime story as long as humanly possible until the action gets in gear, and then goes overboard in compensating for the tension with loads of hardcore violence and gore, of which almost none has anything to do with driving itself, despite the fact that the film builds itself on that premise for all its intrigue (there’s only three chase set-pieces in the film– one is a good tease of cat-and-mouse, but nothing special; the second is a lazy sports-car commercial masquerading as sup-bar Friedkin; and the third is basically extreme tailgating). Finally, the film tries to get away with all this with a tone that’s so steadfastly dead serious and grandioeloquent that it strains itself to the point of self-parody, and despite the fact that it employs a limp sub-plot in the movie industry, I’m not really willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt and call it satire.

    If I wanted to be kind, I’d compare the film to last year’s “The American”, which also strained itself trying to be a minimalist action-drama of sorts and leaned heavily on the genres of filmmakers past. That one was more focused, though, especially in its script (which felt inevitable as hell, but was still a good piece of craft), and didn’t try to live beyond the means of its style, action or story. It also had an actor who could underplay his role without making it seem cheap and empty. “Drive”– it’s trying to be Mann, but missing the expressionist rationale for the style, and doesn’t have nearly the substance to back it up. Moreover, it represents all the same hermetic-seal visual mannerisms that Mann himself has gone to great lengths to outgrow over the years, and at the same time doesn’t offer any of the exotic flourishes that made that oppressive aesthetic choice worthwhile. This is so bland and banal, by comparison, an exquisite frame around a polaroid picture. Furthermore, it’s missing the whole class thing that Mann and other similarly patterned films of the day like “Scarface” and “American Gigilo” were aiming for, with their homicidal yuppie aspirations. Even Nolan, for all his blatant “Heat” rip-offs in “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” gets more about the economics and politics of Mann in his own luxury-fetish white telephone sort of way. This film is a shallow pool of dirty water with a reflection of a bright neon side overhead showing after the ripples clear from a steel-toed boot stepping in it. I’d rather go blind staring at the neon.

  22. I’m not ready to break out the “five-star masterpiece” on this one yet, but I liked it a great deal. Since I saw it Friday, I’ve let let the film soak in. For me, the substance is somewhat lacking, but the style is incredibly appealing. It’s one of those rare films with few wasted cuts, no wasted music cues and wall-to-wall images all meant to illicit something from the audience.

    The cinematography and editing is some of the best I’ll likely experience this year. And all of the supporting players get at least one moment to shine–I particularly liked the well-modulated performances from Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks. Of course, Albert Brooks plays an intriguing and refreshingly malevolent version of his stock character.

    I wasn’t bowled over by Gosling and Mulligan, though. Gosling, in particular, isn’t so much McQueen-esque as he is statuesque. It’s not his fault–I’m sure Refn steered the characterization–but I feel like Gosling over-shot “internalized rage” and wound up looking just plain sullen at certain places in the film. There wasn’t a lot of room for Mulligan to be anything other than the inherently good-hearted love interest, but I never felt any heat between the characters.

    With these two incredibly passive lead performances, Drive felt more like Le Samourai than Bullitt or Michael Mann. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it also defied my expectations and didn’t seem to fit with what the film was doing narratively or stylistically.

    All that said, it’s landed in solid 4/5-star terrirtory and is easily one of the top five films I’ve seen so far this year. It’s also prime for a revisit, possibly before it leaves theaters.

  23. Bob: So it didn’t work for you then. Fair enough. I’ve been spending the weekend reading a number of blogger reviews that are praising this mood piece to high heaven. I see far less Michael Mann than David Lynch to be perfectly honest, and I think you may have misconstrued the director’s intent here. The lack of substance you speak of was seemingly deliberate, as Rfen was shooting for visual poetry and an acute existential underpinning. You seem to be interpreting this film in a literal narrative sense, and are disavowing the dominant tone poem motif. By exploring the seedy aspects of it’s story the film created a singular language that was greatly enhanced by Cliff Martinez’s masterful elegiac music.

    From what you were looking for or expected from the film, I can see why you are reacting the way you did. But from where I stand this was a haunting, visceral and emotional experience. I am (for the most part) indifferent to Mann’s cinema, and I don’t see this film as trying to emulate that style at all. Like everyone else, I react to what stimulates me emotionally and intellectually, and this film bridged that gap magnificently.

    W.J.: While it’s true that my exceeding enthusiasm took me the full distance with DRIVE, I still applaud your 4.5 and “one of the best films of the year” position. Heck, it’s quite close to mine, and you frame the film superlatively. I couldn’t ask for more than that.

    But for Craig, Bob and anyone else who is less than enthused, I can hardly quibble either as each position was persuasive and expressed with sense and exceeding film scholarship. I’m glad to see both sides of the coin here.

  24. Sam, I always hesitate whenever someone protests that a movie isn’t about anything or doesn’t have any meaning. Absence of proof is not proof of absence as they say and one always has to wonder whether they’ve simply just missed something.

    That’s where I find myself with Drive. I’m willing to admit there is possibly more there there than I’m giving it credit for (and there was certainly more than I saw the first time). On the other hand, I’m also skeptical of people adding meaning of their own when there is none. I haven’t yet heard a compelling argument that elevates this movie above Mann which you dismiss as empty exercises in style.

    WJ, I actually felt a lot better about both Gosling and Mulligan the 2nd time around. Mullilgan didn’t have a lot to work with, but it was all in her expressions and gestures. Gosling I think was going for a different kind of cool than McQueen. It’s almost all in his interactions with the little boy.

  25. “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.”

    I don’t think it tried to be that kind of film. And with a relatively meager production budget ($13 million) and only some 17 days shooting it wasn’t designed to be. I think given these constraints, the car sequences were effective as entertainment and in establishing his supreme status as a driver and as someone who remained (mostly) in control and decisive under pressure.

  26. No it didn’t want to be that film, and if you follow the link http://livingincinema.com/2011/09/20/pulling-a-u-turn-on-drive/ you’ll see my reappraisal of the film as a whole.

  27. Thanks Craig, I read the linked post and can see that you completely got the film following the second viewing, even though it didn’t work as well for you as others including myself.

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