Drive (2011) 4.29/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 72.4
Genre: Crime
Duration: 100 mins
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston

An ice-cool getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) living the life of a loner strikes up a relationship with his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her son but when they fall foul of some violent gangsters, his savage attempts to protect her threaten that very relationship while also escalating his problems with the worst of those gangsters (Al Brooks). The first thing that needs to be said about this film is that the premise was completely lifted from Walter Hill’s 1978 unsung classic The Driver (this has been shamefully under-acknowledged by the director who claims to have not even seen Hill’s film prior to making Drive – the opening sequences are identical). As that film was, Drive is also about a supreme getaway driver for hire who shows up on the night of the job to ferry his criminal clients through LA by avoiding the cops, getting them to safety, and then disappearing never to be seen again. In both films, the main protagonist is referred to only as “The Driver” (played in that film by Ryan O’Neill) and in both films, he is defined by an austere personality (though in the 1978 film, this is explained through an implied intolerance the driver bears for the fools he has to work with). Although Drive’s premise is identical to the earlier film, the story differs substantially as it substitutes the fascinating game of cat and mouse between O’Neill’s Driver and an obsessed cop for a plodding romance/revenge drama between Gosling’s and Mulligan’s characters.

Drive is a terribly frustrating film. From a technical point of view, it is a cool and interesting film going experience. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s vision is as audacious as it is slick. The nighttime cityscapes accompanied by Cliff Martinez’ serene score and the complementary retro soundtrack are sumptuously shot while Matthew Newman’s editing particularly in the driving scenes is flawless. Refn was clearly inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral in his depiction of LA but it’s from Mann’s earlier 1980’s films, namely Manhunter and in particular Thief, Drive takes its lead (in fact, while it takes its premise from The Driver, it takes its story from Thief). The action is quite restrained in that crafty driving is favoured over brute force and daring and although we would like to give credit to the director for seeing the strength in that decision, he has claimed it was simply because they didn’t have enough money to shoot any large scale car chases. Regardless of the reason, however, it does indeed heighten the power of the action sequences as well as giving them an original feel. In front of the camera, Gosling does the best he can with a limited script as he succeeds in breathing life into his character in a manner of subtle ways. His walk, his stare, his smile, even the methodical way he puts on his gloves all combine to give this man with no name a fascinating yet serious disposition. The supporting cast are also very good if a bit underused. Mulligan plays a decent emotional counter-point to Gosling but as with Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman, we did not really see enough of her to warrant further comment.

There’s no doubt that these strengths add up to an interesting and unique film which the audience becomes desperate to like. However, there is equally no denying that Drive is marred by hamfisted villainy and a central love story which is painfully flat and insubstantial. As the gangsters, Ron Perlman and Al Brook’s dialogue is just plain laughable at times as are the inconsistencies in their characters’ actions. Perlman is a walking cliche and his motivations for getting involved in the central heist are manically conceived and revealed in a ridiculously trite moment of exposition. On Drive’s release, it became quite fashionable to point out how good Brooks was and while he is enjoyable in the role, his character is a mess (this is elaborated on below). But all this is nothing compared to the central dynamic between Gosling and Mulligan. The dialogue here is nearly non-existent and the chemistry is, not surprisingly, awkward and clumsy. When Mulligan’s character asks Gosling’s Driver a question, he stares at her vacantly, and after a long pause mumbles an answer. This may tie into one interpretation of his character (see below) but it makes for excruciating cinema.

Another major weakness pertains to a continued lack of discipline and maturity in the career of Winding Refn’s. Refn has been accused of being gratuitous in his use of violence in previous films and this criticism can be fairly levelled at him again in both his depiction of the Driver’s actions and those of Brooks’ character. Though Brooks is charismatic in his playing of the Jewish gangster, there are a few obvious moments towards the end where his more violent actions feel forced and extremely artificial. The question is, would those scenes have worked without the violence? In the case of at least two of them, the answer is not only “yes” (because Brooks’ delivery of his lines is more menacing than any action could ever be) but they might have actually worked better as the depth of Brooks’ mean streak would have been unseen and thus, in the imagination of the audience, it would have been potentially limitless. Unfortunately, Refn showed no such understanding and so these scenes ultimately come off looking ridiculous.

However, the most frustrating aspect to Drive is that there is the glimpse of a fascinating notion underlying the Driver’s motivations courtesy of what Gosling brought to the role (the scorpion jacket and featureless stunt mask were his ideas) and what writers Hossein Amini (screenplay) and James Sallis (book) intended. However, the director seems completely oblivious to it and constantly pulls the film in contradictory directions. In interviews and Q & A’s, Refn states that he sees the Driver as the modern day hero and so his ridiculously violent behaviour have no bearing on his mental stability as far as the director is concerned. Not only is his obtuse notion of heroism nonsensical but in his rambling explanations as to how he chose “A Real Hero” for the soundtrack (because he thought it sounded “cool” only to later realised it might explain his protagonist’s behaviour), one gets the distinct impression he had no idea what this film was about, made it up as he went along, and rationalised everything around the simplest explanation. However when we look at Gosling’s contribution to the film, such as the jacket with the scorpion on the back (and, by implication, on The Driver’s back) and the featureless stunt mask he wears during the movie’s most potent scene, we realise that he may in fact have an entirely different interpretation in mind. Gosling’s notion of the Driver seems more akin to Travis Bickle than Refn’s childish and even confused notion of a modern day John McClane. A man struggling to live a normal life but hampered by an emotional coldness which peaks in moments of savage brutality. In other words, a sociopath. (And for those who balk at such a suggestion, ask yourselves, does any other explanation account for the elevator sequence?). It’s a brave idea and it worked well in Taxi Driver but it seems it was too deep for Refn to appreciate.

Which interpretation which we decide is correct is crucial because Refn’s interpretation is not only nonsensical but it means the Driver’s lack of dialogue, long mono-expressional staring, and extreme levels of violence are only explainable as indulgent, pretentious gratuitousness with no bearing on the story. On the other hand, Gosling’s (and we must assume the writers’) interpretation gives Drive a profound subtlety. Unfortunately, because the principals are pulling in opposite directions, the latter isn’t allowed to flourish in the way we assume Gosling had in mind and we are left filling in many of the blanks which Refn’s confused direction leaves in its wake. That said, if one chooses Gosling over Refn, the story can still be enjoyed on that level.

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