Saturday, 18 January 2014

Review: Drive

Drive (2011, trailer) opens in night-time Los Angeles with one of the best car chases I've ever seen.

We hear the voice of Driver (Ryan Gosling): 'There's a hundred thousand streets in this city. You don't need to know the route. You give me a time and a place; I give you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five-minute window, and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that, and you're on your own.'

Two balaclava-ed men exit Driver's car, shoot a side-door open and disappear inside a building. A car alarm sounds. Driver sets an analogue stopwatch and turns on a police radio: 'Reports of shots fired...'

The first guy returns with a bag. A police siren wails in the distance, and gradually grows louder.

The second guy finally sprints out, and now Driver has to get them away.

Instead of a typical bombastic and barreling chase, this one is slow and stealthy. Every shot we see is inside of the car: an over-the-shoulder of Driver's gloved hands on the wheel, a rear-view of a panda car sliding by, a back-seat shot of the two guys' scared faces illuminated by an overhead helicopter spotlight.

The atmospheric sounds of the engine purring and Driver's hands shifting accompany mostly silence - save for a lurking, barely-perceptible synth bassline.

So cool!

I won't give away the scene's conclusion, but I'll say that its cleverness and style matches its buildup.

My Take

Having seen the trailer and this first sequence, I'm pretty sure I have Drive pegged: This is a stylish car-chase movie with retro-music ('80s-chic synths) and -visuals (velvety, noir blacks lit with the saturated pinks, teals and oranges of a vinyl-furnished American diner.)

Basically, it's an artier version of The Transporter. Driver even has a similar set of 'rules' as the Jason Statham character: 'Rule #1: Never change the deal. Rule #2: No names.' Drive will be the exhilarating adventure of a taciturn hero burning rubber and kicking ass, right?

Nope. The title, trailer and opening sequence of Drive are all hugely misleading.

Maybe it was my fault; I must have mis-managed my expectations. Why else would I possibly expect a film with a no-nonsense, face-punch title like Drive to be anything other than character-drama?!

With extended sequences of our bad-ass action hero...carrying groceries? In brown bags?

Shh, this is important stuff.

I have no fundamental problem whatsoever with character dramas, but Drive is an actioner that stars an action character which quickly transforms into a drama that still stars an action character.

Drama and action are two very different things. To quote Red Letter Media's video review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull:

'The appeal of the movies [is] not the character. Indiana Jones's character is unrealistic and not terribly complicated...It's his invulnerability, his luck and his charm that make him admirable...It's not the character people like; it's the idea of the character. We want to vicariously live his adventures...You can't have an Indiana Jones film without him wearing the leather jacket and the whip and the hat - that's precisely because the character's just a hat.'

Drama is all about complex characters who are more interesting for their personalities than they are for what they do. Action is about characters who are fairly uncomplicated...but they do cool shit

Drama can be about any kind of person with any kind of personality going through any kind of difficulty. Their desires, their feelings and their realities can conflict in any number of ways.

Action is about a person (a man, typically) with a cool attitude stuck in a clear-cut situation with a simple objective. Indiana Jones is an archaeologist/adventurer trying to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. As far as Raiders of the Lost Ark is concerned, Jones's personality only amounts to what attitude he applies to the task at hand.

Drive attempts to forge an emotional bond between Driver and his mousy neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), but the two characters belong to different genres. She has a past - a son Benicio (Kaden Leos) and a husband in jail (Oscar Isaac).

We don't know Driver's past. It's not a mystery; his past just doesn't exist. No personality, no name, no nothing. Indiana Jones is a hat and a whip, and Driver is a pair of leather driving gloves and a silver jacket. Just an attitude in an outfit.

Drama is not cool car chases, and action is not long Steadicam takes of our hero in the mustard aisle. I wish Drive had decided to be only one of these, not a dysfunctional combination of the two.

Will he choose French's or Dijon? The suspense is killing me.

Irene has a personality and vulnerability. Driver always wears the same blank expression and barely says anything, let alone anything interesting. Here's some sample dialogue between the two:

(Irene:) 'So you've just moved to LA?'

'No, I've been here for a while.'

'So you're just new here?'


Driver speaking so little wouldn't matter if this was an activity-packed action flick, but if this is a slow drama where I am supposed to take his character seriously, I need to know something about him. Or at least hear him talk about something worthwhile. Here's Driver chatting with Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) later:

(Bernie:) 'When's our first race?'


'You gonna be ready?'

'I hope so.'

We don't even get an inner monologue. Can't the filmmakers throw me a bone here? Is Driver a sufferer of social anxiety? Is he retarded?

Actually, Drive makes a lot more sense to me if I imagine that Driver is a retarded driving-savant whose made-up persona is an amalgam of his favorite movie heroes. Maybe he wears the gloves and jacket and calls himself Driver in the same way that a kid with a knotted bath towel says he's Superman.

As Drive progresses, it gets even weirder than I could have imagined. Just when I think I'm in the middle of a slow-moving, nothing-y drama...

...the peace will become shattered by a moment of horrific violence, such as someone's head being obliterated into pomegranate pulp in slow-motion by a point-blank shotgun blast.

We're not in a fun action film or a slow drama anymore, now we're in some kind of hyper-violent crime thriller. And even this feels half-baked. There's a bunch of characters who are supposed to be gangsters, but all they do is hang out in a pizzeria. It's as if Drive was made by a student whose uncle owns the pizza place, and who gave all his mates toy guns and told them 'Be gangsters now!' (although in this case the director's friends are Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks.)

Maybe these characters are people retarded-Driver knows in his real life, and has incorporated into his Mittyesque fantasy. Maybe this nonsense is all in his head, and every time he gets bored of his current fantasy he imagines he's in a different film. That's the only way I can make sense of it all.

I felt that so much of Drive was well done. The direction (Nicolas Winding Refn), cinematography (Newton Thomas Sigel), music (Cliff Martinez) and acting is all solid. The one who really came up short was the writer (Hossein Amini, based on a novel by James Sallis).


Critics responded rapturously to Drive (93% on Rotten Tomatoes), but not to Winding Refn's subsequent Ryan Gosling-starrer Only God Forgives (39%):
  • 'Did you love Drive? Well...stay away from [Winding Refn]'s followup... Bloody and repulsive for no reason'. - Deadspin article 'The Worst Films of 2013'; writer Will Leitch.
  • 'If you've seen Drive, then you should know that this move is nothing like it...This is a movie that moves along at a snail's pace...' - Top IMDb user review; username Havgar.
Funny, I could say the exact same things about Drive.

Further Reading

For more about gratuitous violence, see my post about Kick-Ass

Screengrabs: Drive was produced by Bold Films, OddLot Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions and Motel Movies. The UK DVD was distributed by Icon Home Entertainment.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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