Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.
Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman
Running Time: 100mins
After a disspiritingly flat eight months, September has suddenly seen a succession of terrific movies salvage 2011 from the cinematic dust heap. I respect Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive a little more than I like it, but it's unfortunate to have not been released a few months ago, when it's the kind of distinctive, interesting production I was begging for in between the soul-crushing Pirates Of The Caribbean and Transformers.
What's worth mentioning is that there are a lot of people who have praised the film a lot more than I'm about to, even though it seemed to me that they failed to understand what it was really about. Bearing some similarities to an action film and a western, it is more accessible by half than Tinker Tailor, although the latter benefits from being more focused in its aims and a genre in which it comfortably slots. Drive does a lot of things very well, but can't quite pull them together as well as it needs to and is most similar to a genre not many people are familiar with. It's a bumpy ride, but a good trip.
So here goes: seen purely on its aesthetic merits, I don't think Drive quite hits its marks. I admire it greatly for attempting to offer mainstream entertainment with a twist for the more experienced cinemagoer (I hope that doesn't sound patronising, it isn't supposed to), but the latter gets in the way of the former just a little too much. The car chases are still exciting and there's romance and a heist gone horribly wrong, but a number of elements, which will make sense to anyone with a passing knowledge of Jim Jarmusch, Sam Peckinpah or Alejandro Jodorowski, will make the experience seem distant and discordant to anyone looking for nothing more than a movie about some guy in a leather jacket driving a fast car.
Drive is really an acid western. I'm amazed that more critics, at least, haven't picked up on this, because the genre is latticed through the film's DNA. To clarify, acid westerns were films from the '60s/'70s which took a popular genre (guess what? It was westerns) and gave them the quality of a self-destructive dream, representative of a time when America was seen as isolationist, with a rotten core at the heart of its culture and aspirations. The films were often languid and surreal, but punctuated with quick bursts of furious violence.
Nicolas Winding Refn goes for much the same effect. Drive is less about a handsome man in a fast car, but the narcissistic nature of Los Angeles culture and Hollywood entertainment, where mythologies are built on foundations of sand. It's no coincidence that one of the film's villains is a former producer, who makes a jibe at the pretensions of European cinema - either Winding Refn acknowledging that his continent often produces stuff equally as meaningless as Hollywood, or playing a trick of self-affirmation by putting the remark in the mouth of such an evidently boorish character.
Either way, the unnamed protagonist's side-job as a movie stunt man appears a meaningless bit of backstory unless taken for its symbolic value. The cleverest shot in the film comes after the very exciting introduction, where the driver helps his quarry escape the police based on methodical use of the environment rather than fast driving. We then cut to him standing around in a police uniform, suggesting that the twist is that he's a bent cop who uses his skills to help criminals on the side. (Which could make a pretty good film, actually). Only in a second reveal, it is then made clear that he's actually on a movie set and only wearing the costume of a police officer. That double bluff immaculately sums up the film's dominant theme: Hollywood is a place where you can be anyone you want to be, but will lose yourself in the process.
Everyone involved with the criminal organisation, standing in for Hollywood, is attempting to pull off such a delusion: there's Bernie Rose, the gangster who pretends to be a movie producer, even though he hates the films he produces. Played by Albert Brooks, he's a tragically terrifying man who loathes everything he does, from the legit work to the violence, but continues because it's all he can do. Nino, the Jewish mobster who pretends to be Italian so his fellows will stop calling him 'kike'. Then there's the driver, who is whatever anyone wants him to be, the blank slate actor, highly in demand but who works on an immovable schedule. In his unfulfilled love affair with Irene, he finds something of meaning and substance, but is unable to rediscover anything of himself to go with it. He bonds with her son, but mostly in front of the television. Whenever he is asked a question, he evades with the same skill he uses in his driving. She and her son show warmth and honesty, born out of the grit of a difficult existence. He can offer only leather jackets, toothpicks and empty stares in return.
Ryan Gosling gives a terrific performance as this shell of a human being, but he's also difficult to watch. Who could engage with someone so superficial? To those unfamiliar with the genre and consequently what Refn is trying to say, the character's longing, lingering stares and flashy dress sense might seem alienating and incongruous. Even for those with knowledge of the film's inspirations, it can be difficult to sit through a film with such an empty character in the lead. Carey Mulligan, charming as ever, is the film's heart, but is completely disconnected from the rest of the body, as she needs to be. Christina Hendricks gets a cameo as Irene's polar opposite: a woman used and abused for her looks. She has gone inside a dirty system and, like so many good-looking actresses, been taken advantage of and spat out the other side. The violence occurring throughout is hard and messy, startling reminders that what Hollywood presents as shallow entertainment is not so much fun in reality.
The same might be true of Drive. From its exciting but robotic soundtrack of outdated '80s electronica to a set of characters with no way of expressing themselves other than through performance and production, it's a clever little film masquerading as superficial gloss, more intelligent than a lot of viewers will be willing to give it credit for but consequently just a little more difficult than it should be to enjoy as something other than a piece of subversion. [ 7 ]
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