Hey! Look at Me!
Am I in a coma? Have I found myself having to write about a personality-free, art-house mash-up of The Transporter and Goodfellas in a world where neither Jason Statham nor Joe Pesci ever existed? I don't hear any distant voices pleading for me to wake up, so let's assume this nightmare world is real and roll with it.
After scoring the top director's prize at Cannes and generating Oscar buzz for Albert Brooks, I'd expected Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive to be the gritty, tense re-imagining of the carsploitation movie that the trailers promised. Unfortunately, Refn has once again proven to be very skilled at remaking exciting, original pictures as pretentious, predictable, and extremely dull slogs. I respect his abilities as a hypnotist far more than I do his directing prowess, as he's somehow convinced marketing departments, awards chairs, and film snobs that he's the second coming of Scorsese. Hell, he's not even the first coming of Michael Bay.
Note: Let me preface the meat of this review by hearkening back to an anecdote that director Adam Marcus shared on the audio commentary for Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. While developing the film, he got several notes from Executive producer/franchise creator Sean S. Cunningham about scenes he'd planned to shoot. Whenever Marcus had mapped out something too precious (yes, sometimes even slasher filmmakers aspire to make Art), Cunningham would yell at him, teasingly, "Film school! Film school!" It was shorthand for the fact that Marcus had crawled so far up his own ass that he'd forgotten how to be interesting without being obvious. Just something to keep in mind.
Drive stars Ryan Gosling as The Driver (paging Dr. Cunningham!), an L.A. stunt man/mechanic who wrecks and repairs cars by day and, ahem, transports thieves by night. He gives his customers five minutes to get in and out of wherever he's brought them, with the assurance that he'll take off "one minute on either side of that". His boss at the garage, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), hooks him up with gigs and takes a cut of the profits. Everything goes well until The Driver meets his new neighbor, the lovely, lonely Irene (Carey Mulligan).
While her husband sits in prison on vague charges, Irene raises their young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos) on her own. She and The Driver have a first-sight attraction so compelling that she instantly forgets the first rule of single-motherhood: Never let the practically silent total stranger living in your crappy L.A. neighborhood into your apartment to hang out with your kid. I assume screenwriter Hossein Amini (working from James Sallis' novel) is trying to say something about the nature of loneliness and/or horniness. I've been both lonely and horny, and there's no way I'd let Ted Bundy's protege anywhere near my family.
It's a minor digression, but this twisted dynamic distracted me for a good fifteen minutes. I kept waiting for The Driver to give some indication as to what Irene sees in him. Stoicism, brief, cryptic answers to questions, and the occasional half-smile when dealing with Benicio don't scream "charm" to me--though it definitely makes loud noise go off in the back of my head.
After a week (maybe more; the time line's as fuzzy as the judgment calls), Irene's husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released and returns home to find another man caring for his family. He doesn't want anything to do with The Driver, until a pair of mobsters roughs him up for protection money he owes from his time on the inside. The Driver agrees to help Standard rob a pawn shop for the people he's indebted to, in order to protect Irene and Benicio--who've been unwittingly made into collateral. The mid-level boss they deal with sends his annoying mistress, Blanche (Christina Hendricks), along with them. The heist goes off without a hitch, and Standard returns to his family while The Driver resumes his quiet life of crime and crashes.
I'm kidding, of course. If you've seen any of Michael Mann's films, you know exactly how the heist goes down. If you've seen Scarface, you know what happens to The Driver and Blanche at the hotel they wind up at, where they discover the million-dollar take in Standard's duffel bag. If you've seen The Transporter, Gone in Sixty Seconds, True Romance, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Transporter 2, Irreversible, or any of the Saw films, you've seen the rest of Drive--minus the interesting performances; plus Cliff Martinez's irritating take on Tangerine Dream's Risky Business score (this is the second time in a week that Martinez's faux-retro nonsense has assaulted my ears and sensibilities; he must be stopped).
But I'm guessing Refn and Amini are counting on your not having seen those films. How else to explain the fact that, aside from one portion of one scene involving a strop razor, Drive is utterly lacking in suspense or surprise? Even if you're ignorant of the films I mentioned, if you're half-awake (a big assumption, considering this film's target audience) you'll see all the big moments coming. Refn telegraphs everything so blatantly that I wonder if he's working to turn ham-handedness into cool irony.
Much has been made about the movie's "shocking bursts of violence". They're shocking in the way that a cat jumping out of a closet in a horror movie makes the audience jump. After the first outburst, Refn sets the expectation that something awful could happen whenever scenes get too quiet. That might be a hard distinction to make in a movie where the main character says less than three hundred words--but there's a noticeable difference between "quiet" and "Here We Go!" quiet. Plus, when The Driver freaks out on people, chunks of blood and teeth fly at the screen in ways that would make Patrick Lussier shake his head.
The key tension-robber in these scenes is the lack of motivation and empathy we have towards The Driver. He's somehow a vicious, conscienceless killer and a tender sweetheart who just needs to settle down with the right girl. We get no back story, only lots and lots (and lots and lots) of staring; the kind that's meant to give audiences plenty of time to create their own bullshit theories about what's going on inside his head--it gives the screenwriter a break and helps the director come in under budget by padding out the run-time.
Seriously, if the screenplay for Drive were typed out as it's played out, the typical scene would look like this:
Irene: So, you drive cars for a living?
Irene: Like, limousines?
Nah, for the movies.
It's a shame, too, because I loved Gosling's work in Crazy, Stupid, Love. In that film, he played a distant, kind of shallow guy who picked up girls, but it was easy to see why someone would fall for him. He exuded the kind of suave, confident mystery that made George Clooney famous--instead of the smirking, vagueness you see in mug shots after a local girl goes missing. Mulligan continues her streak of playing half-baked women-in-distress, proving that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps wasn't just a fluke.
And then there's Albert Brooks.
The awards hype around Brooks' role as mid-grade crime boss Bernie Rose has been so over-done that I mistakenly thought I'd love him even if I didn't love the movie. I love the fact that Albert Brooks is in Drive, because I can never get enough of him. But his performance is just okay. There's nothing memorable about it, aside from the aforementioned razor incident, and I kept waiting for him to do something hype-worthy. Instead, he's just himself, doing a restrained version of Joe Pesci's characters from Goodfellas and Casino. It doesn't help that he's surrounded by track-suit-wearing Sopranos cast-offs who don't realize they're on the wrong coast.
Just as Bronson was A Clockwork Orange for the espresso set, Drive is a typical cars-and-guns picture filtered through the lens of stereotypical European navel-gazing. It looks great, and is full of talented actors, but there's nothing to see and the actors are given little to do. This is The Tree of Life with gangsters. And who the hell wants to see that?
Film students, I guess.