Sunday, October 2, 2011

Movie Review: "Drive"

The best thing that director Nicolas Winding Refn has going for his romance-noir-thriller "Drive" is Ryan Gosling.  Gosling creates a strong presence in a role of a mechanic-cum-movie-stunt-and-getaway-car-driver, a role so barley written that the character has no name.  Filmed almost entirely in pore-enlarging closeup, Gosling holds the camera so well, and communicates so much with the flick of a toothpick, the clench of a jaw or the movement of his eye, that he lends the role an almost undeserved mythic heroism.

Refn makes up for a plot-intensive but minimalist screenplay with an abundance of style.  This is a movie that is spellbinding to the eye and ear.  Refn knows how to move the camera, and to frame his actors.  He even has the sensitivity to craft an effective love story.  Carey Mulligan, as Driver's neighbor, the mother of a young son whose father has just been released from prison, is an effective symbol of soft innocence who touches Driver's heart and moves him to save her from gangsters in a plan that goes terribly awry.  The chemistry between the two is tender and believable. There is hope that somehow this couple and the little boy find a way to escape and wind up together, until she witnesses an act of violence that betrays the ticking time bomb inside this strong and mysteriously handsome enigma.

"Dive" would succeed as a dreamy visual and aural exercise, if not for the tired intrusion of this underworld crime "plot", which provides a context for moments of sudden and very bloody violence.  (All the more likely to market this film successfully to overseas audiences.)  Violence this intense should serve a more significant piece of work that is worthy of it. I can't imagine many films that would recover from such scenes as a woman's head exploding from gunfire, a fork being plunged into an eyeball, a man's head being stomped to a pulp, or a character's arm slashed with a straight razor until he bleeds to death.  "Drive" is no exception; here it is so extreme it becomes almost cartoonish, and given its trappings, I don't believe this is what Refn intended for this film. 

Which is a shame really, because much of "Drive" can carry the viewer away with some eloquent photography and effective cutting, attractive characters beautifully, quietly observed, all of it set to a pulsating and often  lovely contemporary soundtrack .  Just as a simple character study, it is often exciting, and suspenseful.  In spite of the overdone crime-drama elements, we long to know more about these characters, who obviously care for each other, and make us care too.

The influences from other movies seep through this canvas like the neon color scheme Refn used to design this film.  There's the "Blue Velvet" mother and her young son, both in peril from the underworld; the "Taxi Driver" stoicism of the central character whose primal savageness is unleashed; and the Kubrickian bit of nasty ultra-violence perpetrated in front of a roomful of expressionless topless dancers that echoes with images of the Korova Milk Bar.  And if you wonder what Gosling's mention of the Scorpion and the Frog means, watch "The Crying Game". 

Gosling maintains his well-groomed sexiness, while his stylish Scorpion jacket gets more gruesome with carnage like a modern day Dorian Gray; yet his humanity comes through as he recovers from a heart-stopping final confrontation that helps take this above the "Terminator"- level to which the screenplay finally descends. More than once during "Drive's" overlong 100-minute running time, I felt as though I were looking at a graphic novel instead of a film.

In supporting roles, Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") is fine as Driver's boss and old friend who gets tragically involved with a criminal element.  Albert Brooks (have I seen him in anything since 1987's  "Broadcast News"?) looks horrible as a smarmy crime boss with a vicious streak of his own.  And Ron Perlman is just plain ugly in a role that I could barely watch.

The opening car chase sequence raises one's hopes that here will be an intelligent exercise in cinematic movement and suspense.  There are dozens of small scenes and moments that, taken on their own, indicate a filmmaker of substance and savvy resourcefulness.

I would normally, enthusiastically endorse the beauty of Refn's craftsmanship and the haunting visual experience that is a result;  but I can't ultimately recommend "Drive", unfortunately, as anything more than a Big Mac with extra meat, a little more special sauce, and a gorgeously ornate box to serve it in.


  1. Great review, Tom.

    Looks like we both felt the film fell short of what it needed to achieve but for wildly different reasons.

    Personally I felt the violence worked in context of the gimmicky stylised plot, however none of the characters felt like real people so I ultimately didn't care about them.

  2. Thanks Ben. I did find the violent outbursts like finding shards of glass while luxuriating on silk sheets. You forget about the silk pretty quickly...