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movies / September 17, 2011
By Eileen Jones

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.



Add your own

  • 1. vortexgods  |  September 17th, 2011 at 3:45 pm

  • 2. DrunktankDan  |  September 17th, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Thank you for all of your wonderful pieces. You are the sole reason for convincing my girlfriend to sign up for a Netflix account. Film is an art form that I am extremely niave about (music was always how I got my rocks off), but thanks to your reviews, I have learned to look for a lot of otherwise unseen things in movies. You have added a whole layer of content to what would have been a blase medium for me. Again, thanks, and keep it up!
    Back to music, if the Exiled ever needs a Metal critic, I’ve got about a hundred pages of backlogged album reviews. Punk sucks :X Real men bang their heads.

  • 3. DrunktankDan  |  September 17th, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Also, formatting could use a little love. None of the captions work on IE with windows 7

  • 4. ralph chaplin goes to the movies  |  September 17th, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    Mrs Chaplin says I have a man-crush on Gosling. Gosling does solid work, but his real talent is taste. You might not like the film, but you never exit the theater thinking you just spent two hours watching a movie made for mouthbreathing retards.

    Despite a ridiculous premise, Lars and the Real Girl is quite good. Blue Valentine is excellent, but almost too brutal to be watchable. Most of his films seem to flirt with sentimentality, but never quite go over the edge into eye-rolling sappiness.

  • 5. exploitedtimes  |  September 18th, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Thanks Eileen, I didn’t know about this film. I am a Gosling fan though, thought he played a good prick in Murder by Numbers (Sandra Bullock and Michael Pitt), otherwise unremarkable. But he was a good arrogant dick. Gosling’s got a good look and skill – maybe he will yet impress in something down the line.

  • 6. Flatulissimo  |  September 18th, 2011 at 8:54 am

    This was a fine piece of writing and an excellent review. I had a sneaking suspicion that this movie was going to be too slick, now I can avoid it entirely.

    Nice compare/contrast of Gosling with the likes of Marvin and Mitchum, because there is no comparison.

  • 7. Anathame  |  September 18th, 2011 at 11:07 am


    People still use IE?

  • 8. Mike C.  |  September 18th, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Gosling was good in “The Believer,” but doesn’t merit all the cooing and accolades. He’s never had a truly groundbreaking role, and he’s way too monotone in his performances for that to be likely. Ledger surprised everyone by losing himself in his interpretation of The Joker; I can’t really see this dude pulling something like that off. He’s more like James Franco: a smug, middle of the road pretty boy with mediocre range.

    There’s way more noise from horny chicks than anyone else. Maybe he’ll surprise us, but so far he hasn’t got the chops.

  • 9. kallipugos  |  September 18th, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    Wow, where is the love? First off, this is a car flick as much as anything else so if you just dont get American car fetishism you wont get Goslings character. Intellectually the movie is a little incoherent, the Gosling character abets criminals and countenances violence but is too effete to use a firearm. He is portrayed as at core a non-materialistic soul even while fondling car parts in his spare time. But c’mon, the flick had some great character performances and a couple exciting chase scenes. I would have liked to seen Carey Mulligan’s tits if I’m gonna spend $10 at the movies, but that’s just me.

  • 10. iSockpuppet  |  September 19th, 2011 at 7:35 am

    Pusher I was pretty good.
    Pusher II was OK.
    Bronson was awesome.

    I would see Drive based on both seeing Bronson and what you said about the film.

    But I think you are confused. Is it a genre film that doesn’t transcend things? And if so, why don’t you like it?

    You seem to contradict and confuse yourself between the beginning and end of your review.

    Stop thinking so much.

    And Contagion really sucked. Horrible. Three Thumps Boooooring! And Stupid.

  • 11. Moviebuff  |  September 19th, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Eileen is usually right but I actually really enjoyed Drive. It seemed to me to be like a blend between a Tarantino and a David Lynch flick. Stylistically violent action/thriller kind of thing with some really good acting by Gosling and Albert Brooks. It is very well shot and pretty intense with some awesome car chases. I am betting most guys will like it as it is kind of like violent car porn. I had a good time but then again I did drink a whiskey flask while watching it so maybe that is why.

  • 12. exploitedtimes  |  September 20th, 2011 at 5:08 am

    @ Mike C.,

    I agree Gosling hasn’t had a groundbreaker, but how many of those ever get squeezed out of Hollywood anyway? Most will wait their whole lives for any role in a film that can really be called good – on either side of the camera.

    Ledger as The Joker is a fine psychotic performance, but groundbreaking cinema?

    I doubt Gosling is concerned with chasing down Ledger’s legacy or those of Marvin or Mitchum. If he is fortunate enough to earn a part in something strong we’ll see how he turns it.

    Remember, there is a shortage of quality work out there – trash pays the bills in LA – and even guys named DiCaprio make their share of mediocre films.

    There just aren’t that many to go around, that’s why the good ones are hard to find and harder to make.

  • 13. Cernunnos  |  September 20th, 2011 at 7:34 am

    “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.”

    Sounds like Eileen probably isn’t/wouldn’t be a fan of Gaspar Noe movies.

  • 14. Mike C.  |  September 20th, 2011 at 11:09 am

    @ exploitedtimes

    “Even DiCaprio”? For real? His bizarre monopoly on Scorsese roles makes me think (to paraphrase someone) he knows where the bodies are buried. IMO, he brings zero credibility to any performance. If Pitt is, by his own admission, a character actor stuck in a leading man’s body, then DiCaprio is a perpetual teen idol way over his head in roles outside his pay grade.

    Look at actors like De Niro, D’Onofrio, or Day-Lewis (Pacino too, when he’s paying attention). They don’t even have to DO anything to be convincing. They can just stand there, and the terrible abysses of their expressions will say it for them. Di Caprio goes through all these histrionics, but he always sounds (and looks) like Arch Hall Jr.

    Gosling could have a breakthrough role eventually. I’m just saying, so far he’s tried to challenge himself, but I think he plateaus quickly on depth and range. I could take or leave “The Dark Knight” (actually, I think it’s schlock), but that was the role that redefined Ledger’s career. Sure, it helped that he died immediately after, but he created this convincing character that went against decades of portrayals. His scarred, nihilist, sophist Joker made all previous ones look like total shit.

  • 15. exploitedtimes  |  September 21st, 2011 at 4:24 am

    @Mike C,

    I mention DiCaprio to illustrate exactly that – a monopoly, and not just on Scorsese roles. Good roles are hard to find. I think Ledger had a face full of pained expression and no doubt that can be a huge asset. Still I believe you need more than an expression to create the depth you’re talking about; this art is about much more than facial expression of course. If Dark Knight weren’t a mega-budget action genre blockbuster of the year it wouldn’t have redefined anything. Money and hype defined the movie and Ledger went along for the ride. I agree the actors you mention are quality.

  • 16. Mike C.  |  September 21st, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    @ exploitedtimes

    I think you’re selling Ledger short. That his performance came down to a “pained expression” makes it sound like he moped through his role. He probably was pained, but he channeled it into something else (into being a soulless nut), which is what good actors do.

    Now, an actress like Paltrow; she mopes her way through things, and confuses it for depth.

    Gosling looks like he’s trying too hard not to try too hard. In “Lars and The Real Girl” it seemed like he was struggling to keep a straight face and give this sleepy performance. The whole thing appeared somehow suppressed; and I don’t mean the genuine middle-American repression.

    Maybe I’m overselling Ledger’s corpse, but I had the impression he could’ve developed many more memorable characters.

  • 17. exploitedtimes  |  September 22nd, 2011 at 4:11 am

    Hey Mike C.,

    You know just the fact this is a Gosling flick and our thread has digressed to Ledger speaks volumes itself on the comparison. It occurs to me that there appears much to discuss about Ledger and little for Gosling.

    I have seen Dark Knight a few times just to watch Ledger, he makes the movie for me without doubt and the performance is awesome, especially if you enjoy psychos as I do.

    Going further I would argue that Ledger’s performances in Brokeback and Monsters Ball might allow a different depth, if for no other reason than his face isn’t buried in makeup and surrounded by gadgets and stunts. I wouldn’t sell him short, just recognizing that Batman is a vehicle and Ledger made it a memorable one.

    In analyzing the narrative of Monsters Ball, which is incredible in my opinion, one can see how Ledger’s character is such an integral part of the story and film, and
    he inhabits the role and gives it depth and dimension which enable the film to work at levels beyond just the print on screen. This is quality writing behind the quality performance. Of course Billy Bob’s performance opposite is excellent.

    In his short career he contributed significantly and I think Monsters is one of the films Ledger can be proud of.

  • 18. butters  |  September 30th, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    eastwood? christ… there goes all your credibility jones… this flick… flawed as it may be has more character and verve in its opening credits than all of eastwoods atrophied ouvre.


  • 19. Jame  |  October 10th, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Err, butters, why don’t you go back and re-read the last part of the review again.


  • 20. The Gubbler  |  May 6th, 2012 at 2:15 am

    First of all, Heath Ledger’s Joker was terrible. He just talked in that stupid voice the whole time, and it didn’t help that his lines were bad either.

    I hated Drive.

    Albert Brooks was a horrible bad guy.

    The song was especially horrible.

    The fact that people liked it is horrible.

    The fact that people like Ryan Gosling is horrible.

    What is most horrible to me though, is that a little arthouse theater in Seattle, where once upon a time, I saw Zardoz, Valley Of The Dolls, The Masque Of Red Death, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, In Cold Blood among others, decided to play Drive for like a week or two (I don’t remember precisely) while it was still running in other theaters (!!!), because they claimed it was being underappreciated.

    Also, I barely noticed the violence. I was too busy cringing at everything else I guess.

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