Review: Drive

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You know a movie’s gotten under your skin when you leave the theater and pretend like you’re the main character. I drove home ready to weave in and out of traffic and outrun police cars; fortunately I live only a few minutes away and didn’t have to go on any highways, or I might have had my license revoked.

There’s a long way to go this year, with a lot of high-profile movies to come, but it’s a sure bet that Drive will be in my top ten. A moody, somber film that recalls movies like Taxi Driver and Collateral, Drive is full of mystery, menace, and gallons of blood. It starts slowly, but the last half is pure adrenaline.

I will admit I had never before heard of the director, Nicholas Winding Refn, who is apparently a big deal among the cognoscenti. He was hand-picked by star Ryan Gosling, who has taken a part with fewer lines than almost any star turn since Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Wefn directs with a sure hand, with some stunning moments that edge close to calling attention to themselves, but serve the story. A scene near the end, in which two characters grapple to the death, is revealed only in shadow in a sunlit parking lot, and it works tremendously.

Gosling is a Hollywood stunt driver, auto mechanic and, on the side, a wheel man for robberies. He’s so mysterious we don’t even know his name. His closest friend, a mechanic played by Bryan Cranston, doesn’t know anything about him before he showed up out of the blue at his auto shop. He is beyond laconic–A.O. Scott compares him to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, but he’s more like Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbit, an autistic savant when it comes to cars. The opening scene shows him doing what he does best–eluding cops after a robbery, his heart rate seeming like is no faster than someone watching golf on television.

But, of course, there’s a girl, and that changes everything. He becomes sweet on his neighbor, played winsomely by Carey Mulligan. She’s got an adorable son and a husband in prison, but when hubbie gets out Gosling goes against his rules and helps the family out, and you don’t need me to tell you that things go wrong.

As one would expect with a movie called Drive there are some awesome car chases, but they don’t dominate the film. Instead the film is more about the gradual lifting of a veil from Gosling’s face. We sense that something happened to him long ago that made him what he was, as he’s not stupid (Ron Perlman, as a villain, mistakenly tells him, “You’re not very good at this, are you?” Boy, is he wrong). There’s a gripping scene after a shootout in motel, with Gosling’s face coated in blood, in which he pauses, considering his next move. It’s an impassive look, but it’s still wrought with meaning.

There is a lot of blood in this movie. I think there’s about a dozen kills, and they’re all bloody. Gosling, though stone-faced, can be surprisingly vicious (Mulligan finds out about that first-hand in an elevator). We’re also surprised by a performance by Albert Brooks as a businessman who’s not entirely on the up and up. Gosling, when introduced, is reluctant to shake hands with him, and says, “My hands are dirty.” Brooks responds, “So am I.” When Brooks later jabs a fork in someone’s eye, it’s kind of like watching Woody Allen garrote someone.

My grade for Drive: A

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

10 responses »

  1. CAN’T. WAIT.
    And I can’t wait to see Albert Brooks do his thing in this.

    Slim, if you’ve never seen it, I’d be curious to know what you think of Valhalla Rising. I think you’d like it.

  2. It could be a contender if other films fall off the map, but I don’t think it’s a sure bet by any stretch. I also don’t think Gosling will be nominated–it’s not the kind of performance that gets nominated, and he stands a better chance at Best Actor for The Ides of March (more on that coming later today). The best shot at a nomination may be for Albert Brooks.

  3. I absolutely loved it. Agreed that Gosling probably won’t get a nod, but he certainly deserves it, ditto Brooks.

    A friend and I were trying to figure out the use of awful pseudo-80’s music on the way home. Beyond helping to establish the Manhunter-era Michael Mann vibe, I assume it was used (at least partially) for humor value. The whole “bad pop song spelling out the emotions of the characters on-screen” thing was a product of that era.

  4. I actually thought that Gosling was a weak link. It was nice to see him underplay for once, but I just didn’t think he had the chops to handle all those long pauses and moments of silence. Compare him to Mulligan, who is extraordinarily talented, and whose face registers half a dozen, often conflicting, emotions at once. Gosling just can’t play at her level. If Refn had taken away his toothpick – an obvious actor’s crutch, like smoking in the old days – I think he would have just stood there drooling half the time.

    More generally, I was a little disappointed in the movie. I was reminded of The American in some ways, but as much as I liked that film, Drive seems self-conscious and overly calculated by comparison. I really wanted to like it, but I just didn’t really believe the Driver’s character arc; his last phone conversation with Irene, in particular, really stretched credibility, and again Gosling can’t make it work. I didn’t really mind the synth score, but repeated use of the song “A Real Hero” was definitely a poor choice. Might as well have scrolled the words “Please note: this song represents the director’s opinion of this character” along the bottom.

    There were good things about it. Refn shows a really good feel for action staging, with both of the chase scenes being very skilled. Brooks and Cranston are both very good. I’ll be happy to go see the next Refn movie, but it’s a letdown on the whole.

    Also … teal and orange. Everywhere. I know it’s LA but, sheesh.

  5. I was going to mention that the horrible soundtrack was my only gripe. Interesting theory.

    I didn’t really mind the synth score, but repeated use of the song “A Real Hero” was definitely a poor choice. Might as well have scrolled the words “Please note: this song represents the director’s opinion of this character” along the bottom.

    Slight modification to my theory from last night:
    The bad 80’s music is The Driver’s INTERNAL soundtrack.

    The songs spell out his emotions/dreams in a simplistic manner…they could have been ripped from any montage scene in an 80’s film. The lyrics are absurd and repetitive, but that’s the point. He’s creating his own, cheesy real-life montage as a short-cut to actual personal growth/change.

    The 80’s possibly represent a better time in his life, before suffering whatever traumas he suffered to make him the man he is today. Shit isn’t as black and white as in The Karate Kid.

  6. The 80′s possibly represent a better time in his life, before suffering whatever traumas he suffered to make him the man he is today.

    Assuming he’s roughly Gosling’s age, he would have been awfully young in the early- to mid-80s, when this kind of synth pop was really a thing.

    I actually took the music to be a more or less non-ironic stylistic choice – I’m not really plugged into the scene, as it were, but my impression is that this kind of retro 80s synth is sorta big again, at least in certain circles. It’s not like he used actual 80s songs.

  7. Saw this over the weekend and can’t deny it’s very well made technically. And the performances are generally fine, especially Brooks & Cranston.

    But for all the excellent work I was slightly underwhelmed by the end (perhaps in part because of the great reputation it has). I was surprised by how violent the film became in the second half as it went from being an exercise in style to a virtual vigilante film and an indestructible hero out of a 1980s low-grade Cannon flick.

    To be sure, this is an impressive film in many ways but I definitely prefer the similar ‘The Driver’ from 1978.

    Rating: B-

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