When considering this review for Drive prior to the advanced screening, truly, I was prepared to entirely disclose my bias toward the talented Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher trilogy; Bronson; Valhalla Rising) ─ fully expectant to write a glowing, if not positive review. These thoughts were washed away 20 minutes in and 100 minutes later. Bottom line is that the sum of Drive’s parts fails to provide the Hollywood debut most were hoping for with Refn. And mind you, I tempered my expectations before the screening.
Drive is an eclectic genre-bender which isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Not that this convolutes the film, rather it disrupts the film’s possible centered core ─ a lack of definition.
Drive purports to be a heist film about a laconic Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for one of the over 2000 heists which take place every year in the metropolis of Lost Angels. After an evocative, aerial skyline reveal of Los Angeles (lensed by the skilled DP, Newton Thomas Sigel) ─ you know ─ the iconographic one we’ve seen numerous times in films of the past twenty-five years (though there is a breathtakingly rich, sharpness with these – anything to do with the Arri Alexa used in production?) and a short intro narration, an intense opening getaway begins the film with a visual texture based in a gritty griminess which belies the peripheral sheen.
Thus we are immediately plunged into the dark, underworld belly which our protagonist (unnamed of course – an apt and shallow metaphor) is organically involved in. After this dynamic opening, the momentum is unfortunately slowed by a forced, compulsory relationship between the Driver’s neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan, cute but lifeless) and her precocious child.
Not long thereafter, Irene’s prison-bound partner, Standard (Oscar Issac), is inexplicably released from prison (there on what seems to be a manslaughter-type conviction related to robbery). In quick time, Standard’s demons begin to threaten not only him and his family, but also the Driver who in an attempt to protect this woman and child (read: heroic and tragic) that have entered a special place in his heart; gets involved.
The formed bond is both forced (partially through an irritating soundtrack) and eventually heartfelt. Either way, the emotional weight is noticeably lacking. This relationship insertion is to the detriment to an already thinly structured film. Let alone the convolution begun once Standard is released. All leads to a serendipitous clashing with an underworld which already had its grimy grips into the Driver’s life before the big heist goes terribly awry. As was the case in Goodfellas with the Lufthansa heist, anyone connected with the heist must be eliminated.
The underworld includes: Bernie (a strong and slick Albert Brooks), a former 80s action film producer turned criminal kingpin; Nino, the Jewish gangster tied to the Italian Mafia (Ron Perlman in a fun turn) – perpetuating this criminal symbiosis and its long history since the early 20th century. Throw in the moll/possible femme fatale Blanche (Christina Hendricks in a truncated role) and the (screenwriting) requisite mentor-helper, Shannon (Bryan Cranston doing well with the thin portraits), and you complete the varied stock archetypes seen many times in crime cinema before.Yet proving too much caricature instead of character.
As proven before, familiarity is fine and even interesting in its homage qualities here (mythologized Man with No Name - Eastwood and Le Samourai, fetishized objects: gloves,toothpick, satin emblazoned jacket), but its originality which lifts the level of artistry. And it is here that Drive lacks. The problematic script dooms the potential for the Hollywood debut of Refn. A director personally chosen by the film’s star, Ryan Gosling ─ an actor whose work I continually search out.
The blame lies with screenwriter, Hossein Amini, whose previous credits (Jude, Four Feathers) makes this stumble so confounding. The script attempts complexity and depth. All attempts do not succeed. Thin character sketches and complex twists with the aplomb of a Tom and Jerry plot sum up the screenplay. Minimalism is fine, but not when other key elements are missing. With a background in screenwriting I could go further in-depth, but Refn and Gosling do not deserve the discourse.
One does question how much control Refn had in terms of the rewriting the screenplay since he has written most of his prior films. If he did have control, shame on him, if he did not, shame on them (the producers).
While the film exhibits occasional flourishes of character work, humor, intensity and vivid imagery (alongside extreme violence), these few success’ cannot match the skill of the participants in front of and behind the camera. And it is a shame, too. It is due to their talents that some depth rises through.
Positives include the story’s existential qualities and the rich, colorful, not showy lensing. Also effective are the booming sound (gun effects and music: synths and retro-source driven soundtrack) adding double shock to the viscerally intense, borderline extreme-gratuitous violence as the Driver "gets medieval". Something those familiar with Refn’s work knows he does not shy away from. Nevertheless, both usages (sound effects/violence) convey realism of milieu.
Appreciated but somewhat clichéd voice-over narration gives us brush stroke insights into what makes this essentially existentialist (Refn mentions a Jodorowsky influence), anti-hero (with a seeming guilt complex – can you say Freud, Sartre, and pathos) tick. Words of wisdom to screenwriters ─ if you use one of the most common devices of narration, study the best (e.g, Double Indemnity, Apocalypse Now, Stand By Me) and give those words the originality, character/story reveal, and poetic justice they deserve. Some hits and misses within the film’s narration.
I would be remiss if I did not address the film’s ending. The ending has a more open rather than closed ending which will frustrate and bewilder those looking for closure. The Hollywood paradigm also calls for closed ending, yet here the closed ending would not fit the Hollywood paradigm of “happy” ending. The irony is the missed opportunity for a powerfully poetic closing moment was right there (à la Death Sentence’s final image), but instead continues a few moments beyond. And while admirably using shadow during the climax, it is nevertheless anti-climactic.
A worn plot that has been driven over one too many times, Drive’s enigmatic efforts ultimately fail. And for a film called Drive, there are relatively few car scenes.
The novel Drive which forms the basis for this filmed adaptation (author James Sallis) has been described as “sharp and concise as haiku written with an icepick.” Sounds like all the intriguing things the film is not.
The words paradox and conflicted come to mind when considering Drive overall. And this is dually a good and bad thing, aptly paradoxical. And out of respect for Neo-noir, I refuse to apply that moniker here. While other reviews have referenced the film with words like: “European art, grindhouse, comic gore, and B-movie aesthetics.”
Two immediate comparisons which hit me post-screening were Collateral and Heat. Apropos in that each is a Michael Mann film whose tone and synth driven scores are comparable (Thief, too) to Drive.
And while the reaction has been mostly positive (even supposedly earning a stand ovation at Cannes) and with less vitriol then this reviewer, it begs the question ─ did they see the same film as me? In reviews you will also see references to films such as, To Live and Die in L.A. and Bullitt, and rightfully so. Some have even called Drive, “a classic L.A. heist-gone-wrong story à la To Live and Die in L.A.”
I agree except for the word “classic”. Rather Drive has cult film written all over it – a status that has befallen Refn’s prior work and not exactly the grand Hollywood introduction to one of Europe’s unique visual voices in contemporary cinema.
© by Julian Boyance, September 16, 2011
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