Well, jeez, I don’t know. I didn’t like Drive, but maybe you will. It’s one of those movies that pushes everybody out into the open, as far as their own biases and personal film hang-ups and all. How you feel about genre film vs. art film, and violence onscreen, and the uses of film noir, and the American vs. the European film traditions, and Ryan Gosling, all those things will decide how you react to Drive.
Take the violence, for example. It didn’t seem like much to me, but critics are really going on about it. There’s a face-stomping death in an elevator, but you don’t really see it so much as hear it, and there are heads exploding with gunshot wounds into aestheticized blood-spray, but nothing to write home about if you’ve ever seen Japanese or Hong Kong action films. There’s a lethal razor cut, and frankly I was surprised how much I didn’t feel that, because razors fill the imagination if you handle them right. Something about the way they lift that little papery top-layer of skin separately and smoothly, and then the thin line of blood starts to appear…only that doesn’t get shown in the film. Just one fast slit in long-shot and it’s done. Plus there’s a fork stuck into an eye that’s just plain silly.
Maybe I’m getting too jaded, I tell myself; I can’t judge film violence right anymore. The color scheme in Drive seems more violent than the violence. There are pinky-lavender cursive-writing credits over a neon-lit Los Angeles nightscape which are extremely hurtful, and then these terrible combos of peach and sage green—very 1980s—in the apartment scenes in Drive that are worse than the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, if you had to live through the 1980s. And then there’s the appalling film score, a cruel techno-pop pastiche, with one repeated song in particular that’s so terrible, featuring girl-singers lisping babyishly about a guy being a human being and a hero, I can’t recall it without shuddering.
If you liked ’80s movies and TV, Miami Vice neo-noir and John Hughes romantic comedy and all that kind of crap, and have a hankering to see it brought up to a feverish pitch of Euro-cinema stylization, enough to make the whole crowd at the Cannes Film Festival wriggle ecstatically in unison, this one’s for you. Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn won the Best Director award at Cannes, and he’s established a big international rep as a director of stylish action films like The Pusher trilogy. He’s making his move to wow America too, with Drive.
Drive takes an old plot, the one about a man who’s a ruthless killing machine who unexpectedly finds love or human connection of some kind and is coldly pleased to have a purpose, all of a sudden, in using all his killing skills to defend the loved one, or the liked ones. Very romantic. We enjoy this story—we all want a killer of our very own. We see endless variations on this plot in Westerns, action films, film noir.
In Drive, he’s played by Ryan Gosling, whose last name means “baby goose.” I’m just mentioning it. This Gosling has a long, sensitive face, and thick eyelashes, and wears a cream-colored satin jacket with a scorpion embroidered on the back. He doesn’t look like he’s going to kill anybody, he looks like he might be headed out to the clubs, clubs you don’t want to go to. He has a way of standing, in his scorpion jacket, making himself as constrained and narrow as possible, that disguises the gym-body he’s acquired and calibrated down to impressively delineated muscle and no body fat. It reminds one, yet again, how dead Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum are, who were big men with body fat who also looked like killers in the most wonderful way.
Gone but not forgotten!
Anyway, I haven’t paid much attention to this Gosling, who tends to be in films I don’t see, like The Notebook and Lars and the Real Girl and Blue Valentine. Everybody raves about him, and I guess he’s pretty good. It’s pleasant to see anyone play action scenes poker-faced—far too much emoting goes on in films these days. He has nice introductory scenes as the getaway-car driver for an LA burglary who’s so competent under pressure that the burglars in the back seat sit there terrified but respectfully silent as he gets them out of their jam. That was nicely handled—none of that filler dialogue you get so often in action scenes.
Gosling has a toothpick lodged in his mouth throughout the scene, alluding to Sterling Hayden and Steve McQueen and Chow Yun-fat and God knows how many tough guys and tough genre film scenarios—Drive is full of them.
But he’s not playing the world-weary grown-man version of this part, he’s playing the troubled-youth version. There’s something lacking and childlike about Gosling’s never-named driver, with his high whispery voice and uncertain air, so that it makes sense when he falls in love with his waif-like apartment building neighbor Irene, played plaintively by Carey Mulligan. With her big bewildered brown eyes and dimples and kindergarden haircut, you’d never guess this Brit actress could play anything but a child-woman so perpetually alarmed you want to pat her head and say “It’s all right.” So I’ll simply note for the record that she did a fine job playing the worst little bitch Jane Austen ever wrote, Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, in one of those PBS things.
In Drive she has one of those adorable five-year-old kids Hollywood is teeming with, and this kid and Driver seem to relate on a peer-to-peer level. Together, the three of them look like a slow day at the daycare center, only it so happens that one of the children can drive and kill people.
After the opening scene which is nicely tense, there’s a long slow build-up showcasing romance among the kiddies, featuring lots of meaningful pauses. Gosling and Mulligan have to sustain pauses so long you could use them as bathroom breaks and come back to find nothing changed, they’re still gazing at each other with shy goofiness. Believe me, at these points you’ll crave violence as you rarely have before. You’ll be glad when the guy playing Mulligan’s husband (Oscar Isaac) gets sprung from prison and sets the crime-plot in motion again involving all the key players in the film including Driver’s hapless, gimpy boss at the auto garage, Shannon (played by Bryan Cranston, who’s going for some sort of delightful Walter Brennan Award for Colorful Character Acting), and Shannon’s gangster connections (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, also character-acting like mad).
For some critics, when it comes, the violence is way too much. For Kenneth “Wrong” Turan of the LA Times, the violence is,
“intense, unsettling and increasingly grotesque and graphic as the film goes on,” and it “so clashes with the high style and traditionalism of the rest of the film that when the bloodletting goes into overdrive, so to speak, it throws you out of the picture, diluting the mood rather than enhancing it.”
And David Edelstein of NY Magazine is absolutely wigging out about its deleterious effects:
“Refn, a Dane, is the sort of man to take Hollywood action movies to the next slick, amoral, and unbelievably vicious level. In Drive’s production notes, he says, ‘I’m very interested in the dark side of heroism, how that unstoppable drive and righteous adherence to a code above the average person’s can shade into something that is quite psychotic.’ Right, the duality—we get it. But Refn doesn’t recoil from that psychosis: He digs its potential for splatter. The murders are what gore freaks call ‘ultra-wet,’ with the camera stationed happily in the middle of crimson showers. Without the extreme violence, Drive would be a lifeless rehash of such self-consciously existential thrillers as Walter Hill’s The Driver and Michael Mann’s Thief instead of, ‘Oh, shit, oh, God, this is so friggin’ hard-core!’”
For other critics, the violence is redeemed by irony, that ’80s-’90s irony that did so much to poison the atmosphere and make one long to emigrate to a land without smirks. Here’s J. Hoberman of The Village Voice—he’s a horrible little tick—who loves how Drive works as “a joke”:
“Both times I’ve seen Drive, audiences were audibly amused by Gosling’s outbursts. The violence is laughable not so much because it is excessive but because it so thoroughly pulverizes the driver’s otherwise dent-proof façade….Refn’s protag attacks one baddie in a dressing room full of soigné strippers and stomps another to a pulp only minutes after the shy proposal he offers Irene. Gosling has the timing to carry it off, but the professional here is Refn. This grind-house risibility is totally strategic—at once counterpoint to the movie’s old-school suspense and an antidote to its out-front sentimentality. Basically, Drive is a song of courtly love and devotion among the automatons. It’s a machine, but it works.”
The two scenes Hoberman refers to are among the most stylized. In the dressing room killing scene, strippers sit posed like mannequins in an elaborate nudie-art tableau, while Driver stabs and tortures one of the despicable villains. It’s very tiresome. In the elevator scene, the most talked-about, the elevator seems to expand fantastically in order to accommodate two planes of action, a long ardent kiss between Driver and The Waif, behind the back of the hired killer come to murder them, before Driver pivots to out-assassinate the assassin in a way that requires plenty of room for stomping. The color scheme also shifts before-and-after kiss, an expressionist effect that director Refn brags about a lot in interviews.
Despite all these formalist flourishes, A.O. Scott of the New York Times says it’s not enough:
“This is not to say that the movie is bad — as I have suggested, the skill and polish are hard to dispute — but rather that it is, for all its bravado, timid and conventional. In the hands of great filmmakers (like Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Godard, to stick with relevant examples) genre can be a bridge between familiar narrative structures and new insights about how people interact and behave. Those are precisely what ‘Drive’ is missing…”
So the movie fails to transcend its genre film status, like those swell auteurs Godard and Eastwood woulda managed, and never becomes something truly worthy of a big-shot film critic’s time, which would be a movie that’s more like a Sociology 101 class. See, this is why I like genre films that don’t transcend things. You just weed out all this kind of crap immediately.
But that’s just me.
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