Drive (2011)

At the wheel 

Drive, directed by Nicola Winding Refn, which showed at many festivals before opening including Cannes and Toronto, is a violent LA thriller that’s too nasty to recommend to the faint of heart. An eye gouged out. An arm slit open all the way down with a sharp knife. A man bashed to death in an elevator. Viewers who like neo-noir will like the style of this, though some of the old noir virtues of humor and funkiness are lacking.

Ryan Gosling is the lead, a young man with no name who drives Hollywood stunt cars, works in a garage, and moonlights as a wheelman for holdups, on hire. At the top of his game of late, Gosling totally owns this role. He carries it in every scene with taut skill and conviction, and as in True Believer, Crazy, Stupid, Love and other good roles, his hardness has a tiny complimentary edge of vulnerability, that uniquely personal extra element that’s like the drop of black paint that makes a can of white paint whiter. “You’re not very good at this, are you?” says a gang boss (Ron Perlman) he calls to threaten; but he ruthlessly wipes out enemies, and never falters as a driver, whether race car, stunt, or crime. He is pretty shut down with Irene (Carey Mulligan), his neighbor, who has a cute little boy Benicio (Kader Eos) and a husband in prison. Irene is as inarticulate. He wants her, but can only protect her, so violently that ultimately it repels her.

Drive trades on wordlessness at first; it will have its talky moments, though Gosling’s Driver will have little to say. Its pre-titles sequence of a holdup ride shows him as a pro at dodging cops in a getaway chase, using the police radio band and following a game on the regular wavelength to relax in between. It’s a dark sequence that evokes the kind of B road pictures Tarantino fed on for Deathproof plus a touch of Michael Mann’s elegant digital LA night in Collateral. Driive’s screenplay was developed from a tightly written mystery novel by James Salis by experienced and versatile screen adaptor Hussein Amini (Jude, Wings of the Dove, Four Feathers).

This is strong stuff, but I’m not sure all the elements blend. As I’m not the first to note (Kenneth Turan says this in the LA Times), there is a disconnect between the cold neon LA style crime story and traditional noir that undermines this film. Mann avoids that with Collateral, because it isn’t exactly noir, so much as a crime film with an anti-hero and a brilliant dark digital noir crime look that makes Los Angeles both cold and gorgeous. It’s a kidnapping story with an arresting, talkative criminal played well by Tom Cruise. Gosling’s Driver, though watchable, even impressive as an action figure — and this film never feels derivative despite all the sources it’s nourished by — lacks the appeal of Cruise’s panache. Finally as well as he plays it, this is not one of Gosling’s very best roles. And I’ve never been quite convinced by Carey Mulligan. She typically yields nothing here, and having her opposite the phatic, anomie-drenched Driver makes those scenes where they’re tête-à-tête go dead. Quirky characters there are, with Perlman as Nico, the Jewish mob-connected guy whose front is a pizza shop, Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose, his softer (till he gets super-sadistic) connection with racing cars, and Walter White of TV’s Breaking Bad as Shannon, who runs the garage where the Driver works and is his mentor. These pieces don’t fit; their shticks don’t mesh. Gosling has no shtick, and that works best alone, not with these connections, whom he can only avenge or smash. They may be meant to set him off, but they simply seem extraneous, and that’s not good when he becomes deeply embroiled with them.

In the end, some of the complexity of Sallis’ book inevitably gets lost, the thrilling, suspenseful neatness of a noir mystery. That paring down makes individual scenes in the film crucial. Gosling is swell in all of his — even the awkward ones with Mulligan develop his mystique — but Refn, the Danish director who has concentrated on violent criminals (he made his name and Mads Mikkelsen’s with his Pusher Trilogy), isn’t used to filming this kind of story. There is something wrong in the way Drive unfolds. There’s the technician wheelman in the prologue (and a Hollywood stunt sequence) and some later speed scenes; there’s the disconnected existential hollow man trembling with repressed tenderness when he’s with Irene; there’s the criminal who gets embroiled in Irene’s husband’s problems with mobsters when he’s released from prison. The latter get muddled and the ending isn’t quite right.

Yet Drive has gotten a long string of raves in its American release, and understandably. Critics are reacting to the touch of class and originality Refn and Gosling bring. This is not standard-issue American crime stuff. The car races or getaways are conceived in a very specific and distinctive way. The hero is like something out of a noir Camus novel. The music is impulsive but doesn’t obtrude too much. The look is nightmarish and bright (though panorama shots of LA seem a bit clichéd compared to Mann’s) and also, not standard-issue. The cast is good even if imperfectly matched. If you hold this up to the standard of ordinary American crime movies this is fine stuff. But we ought to hold it up to the higher standards it aspires to. And on that level, it is true, as the Times’ A.O. Scott says, that Refn may be the coolest thing around right now but he doesn’t achieve what the great directors do, which is to transcend genre to reveal new things about how people behave and how we see things.


Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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