Drive (2011)

If I had a hammer...I'd hammer in the mornin'...and I'd hammer in the ev'nin'...all over this cagey bastard's face...
“If I had a hammer…I’d hammer in the mornin’…and I’d hammer in the ev’nin’…all over your face…”

Am I the only one who remembers Grand Theft Auto: Vice City?

No, that’s too flippant. I know for a fact director Nicolas Winding Refn remembers Steve McQueen’s 1972 movie The Getaway. I’ll bet he remembers its pointless 1994 remake (starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger of all people) as well. Me, though, I remember Vice City. I played the whole way through that stupid game twice (2002 was a bad year) and, apart from its bitchin’ soundtrack, I remember a whole lot of hot pink cursive text. The kind that’s all over Drive, Refn’s ninth movie and the first real  critical darling of Fall 2011.

That last sentence assumes you’re like me and like to pretend Planet of the Apes remakes don’t exist. [Future Dave’s note: You’ll have to forgive past-me’s egregiously ill-informed pre-judgement of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which we wound up liking quite a lot, in spite of its shitty title. Proof, once again, that the Cultural Zeitgeist is occasionally right about something and that I am a misanthropic, ornery jerk, prone to thinking the worst about everything.] So I’m a critic. I should like Drive…right? Well…I do…kinda…but I’m not like you people. You see this site. You know what I’m into. And hopefully I’ve made what I don’t like crystal clear.

Drive straddles that line. It’s a good movie that’s not at all to my taste. That’s fine. The weight of the world’s crushed my spirit more than enough over the last six months. I wasn’t expecting much and neither should you. I don’t like to do this for just any film but, given the present danger of over-hype and its ability to bring even competent modern films low, I recommend this be the first, last and only review of Drive you ever read before seeing the film for yourself. And I do recommend you see it. But only if you fall into a number of distinct categories.

Press R1 to seek cover.
Press R1 to seek cover.

First, you’d better love you some Crime Dramas – Bonnie and Clyde and Bullitt‘s  ill-begotten children. Like The Getaway. Unless you love curling up on a cold night with some hot Steve McQueen action, Drive won’t have much for you. Ryan Gosling would be lost without the ol’ Blob killer’s example. In his time off from loving war and planning great St. Louis bank robberies, McQueen managed to usurp the by-then-aging Marlon Brando’s position as the Exemplar of Badass for young male actors the world over. For a definite subset, he  remains so to this day.

Gosling McQueen plays…um…the Man With No Name #2114…a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic by day, expert wheelman-for-hire by night. He claims to know every road in LA like he laid them down himself and his boss/manager Shannon (Bryan Cranston) makes sure we know just how godlike Gosling is once you get him behind the wheel of a car. All these informed attributes stood out to me like highway reflectors during a late night car chase, reminding me even more of video game character introductions.

In the argot of video games, Gosling is a Silent Protagonist. We see this in a quite-tense opening sequence, rightly released onto the internet through official channels to drum up support for this movie…and because it’s cool enough that it would’ve wound up on YouTube sooner or later anyway. Refn, despite making a movie called Drive, was quite vocal about his complete disinterest in cars and their attendant culture. Thank God. If I ruled the world, people who didn’t care about cars would be the only people allowed to direct “car movies.” That’d end the Fast and the Furious franchise pretty fucking quick.

"Hey, man, could you shift a little to the left? Thanks."
“Hey, man, could you shift a little to the left? Thanks.”

Instead, Refn plainly cares about isolating the audience within Our Driver’s perspective, doing what he can to place us into Our Driver’s leather gloves. Refn’s camera floats in some nebulous space above the center console, Our Driver framed in the rear view mirror. With one exception (and I’ll bet you that only happened because some producer insisted they “get the most out of the stunt”) this remains our constant in-car worldview. Our Driver’s.

Into his world comes a cute-but-awkward next door neighbor named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). Their eyes meet in the hallway. Their paths cross at the grocery store. He hooks her up at his garage when her car breaks down and finds her a somewhat-trustworthy mechanic in Shannon. Shannon, in turn, maneuvers Our Driver into giving Irene a lift home. Asking if she wants to see something, Our Driver takes Irene and Benicio down the concrete ditch that used to be the Los Angeles River.

As they drive down the channel (passing John Connor’s old motorbike and the rusting hulk of an 18 wheeler with no roof and a body full of shotgun ammo) the song that might as well be this movie’s theme rolls over everyone’s dialogue and plops itself down for a spell. It’s called “A Real Hero” by College (feat. Electric Youth) and it’s hook goes a little something like this

And you have proved to be

A real human being

And a real hero

"And here's where the big rig exploded in flames as the future governor sped away on his motorcycle. Without looking back, of course. Cool guys don't look at explosions."
“And here’s where the big rig exploded in flames as the future governor sped away on his motorcycle. Without looking back, of course. Cool guys don’t look at explosions. Remember that, nino.”

What was that, soundtrack? I didn’t quite get that message…but I’m sure, with a few more tries, you can curb-stomp us with whatever it was you were trying to say.

Just kidding. Nice try, but you can’t fool me, Drive. I know better than to let you sucker me in with these pastoral shots of domestic bliss beside the remains of a once-natural landmark. I see that (and the shinny, happy sunlight your DP let into the lens) and I batten down my mental hatches, preparing for a little bit a the old Ultra Violence.

So I’m glad to see Shannon attempting to secure $300,000 in start-up money from his former employer, the ex-movie producer and current mobster Bernie (Albert Brooks). Along with Nino (Ron Fuck-mothering Pearlman!), Bernie’s connection to the Family back east, Shannon hopes to enter Our Driver into the local racing circuit, the better for him to put his natural talents towards cleaning up…in a somewhat legal manner. Sure, Shannon’s new business partner introduces himself by telling Our Driver about how he once helped break Shannon’s pelvis but, hey…that’s business, am I right?

I could go on about how dumb it is to finance anything with mob cash (if you think Student Loan interest rates suck…Je-zus) but the next scene pretty much says it all. Benicio and Our Driver our watching some cartoon on Irene’s couch:

Driver: Is he the bad guy?

Benicio: Yeah.

Driver: How can you tell?

Benicio: Because…he’s a shark.

Driver: There are no good sharks?

Benicio: No…I mean, just look at him? Does he look like a good guy to you?

The good shark, 2011.
The Good Shark

I can see why all the right people liked this movie. Whenever its not patiently telling your how to feel about what you see on screen, Drive‘s first twenty minutes are a lot of long tracking shots and silent significant looks, shared by Our taciturn protagonists (and Benicio). There are some very nice, very authentic-feeling interactions between Our Hero, His Chick and her Kid (like the one above). As are the initial, prickly interaction between Our Driver and Irene’s recently-paroled husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac). (And, yes, that’s his character’s actual name.)

After two scenes of domestic bliss (there should be more, but all this Significant Pausing tends to crowd out room some movies reserve for their stories) we learn that Standard came out of prison with a substantial amount of protection racket debt hanging over his head. That’s now hanging over his family so, in true Taciturn Badass fashion, Our Driver decides not to tell Irene about it. Instead, he volunteers his services to help Standard rob a pawn shop for a scumbag named Cook (James Biberi), the better to make Standard’s debt all go away.

It all goes horribly wrong, of course. These things happen and these Crime Dramas live or die on the strength of what happens before the excrement goes airborne. Drive‘s strong enough in that to snap every other summer action movie that came out this year over its knees, but I still wound up checking my invisible watch as we crawled towards the Inevitable Conclusion.

Ridley Scott was right!
Ridley Scott was right!

I get it, guys. I really do. There’s plenty to like here. Refn’s a competent director who knows how to paint a picture with people, cars, buildings and backdrops. LA has to be the most-photographed city in the world but, thanks to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and whole mess of location scouting, Drive‘s found a side of the city I haven’t really seen outside SF TV shows about paranormal detective agencies, Executive Produced by Joss Whedon.

It’s a bright, colorful wonderland that’s also as gritty as Our Driver’s trademark scorpion jacket. A rainbow, viewed through the layer of grime and dead bugs on your windshield. The leprechaun at the end? Yep, he’s Hellboy. And the mob’s earmarked his pot o’ gold for their west coast expansion project (which I imagine involved taking over dojos and using them as fronts – the Russians tried it back in the 80s but they wouldn’t know a shakedown if it Spinning Bird Kicked them in the face).

Like Ridley Scott’s best work, Drive‘s a depressing story about people who inevitably and tragically push themselves into a horrible situation, leaving their dreams bleeding out all over LA’s dingier motel carpets. If you’re in the right mood, you’ll probably enjoy it. But I think your mood’s as crucial to how you’ll receive this flick as your knowledge of Crime Dramas or Chilean avant-garde directors. (Refn’s other major influence…look it up).

Oh fuck, it's Young Michael Myers!
Oh fuck, it’s Young Michael Myers. Hide your knives and daughters. Hide your groceries too.

Summer 2011 was a bad season. We all knew it would be going in and it did not disappoint. How could it when two films on either end both had the number “5” in the title? The superhero movies were lackluster retreads or feature length commercials for The Avengers. Michael Bay once again loosed his horrors upon an undeserving world. Until Gosling came along, Andy Serkis and his CGI monkey suit were the most convincing leading man of the year.

Enter this blond statue, straight from the land of indy drama, a fresh face who’s watched enough old movies to have this Taciturn Badass thing down to a Science. Thing is…I’ve watched too many of them myself. I can see all the tricks. Hell, I’ve watched too many of the samurai films that shaped our modern Man With No Name archetype in the first place. A least Toshiro Mifune came alive outside of his fight scenes.

Face it: Our Driver is a lemon in a jacket the gangs of West Side Story would call tacky. What, did the Scorpions rise up and conquer everything after the great Jets-Sharks War of ’61? Is that why Our Driver’s out here on the West Side? Shannon says he just walked right in “five years ago” and asked for a job.  This is all we learn about him, or his past, and with very good reason. When bodies start piling up thanks to Our Driver’s Berserker Rage in defense of his Hot Neighbor, her son, and the normalcy they represent, we’re supposed to be surprised. The endless waves of identical, invincible gun-worshipers (most of whom filled out the cast of The Expendibles) are supposed to’ve lulled us into a false sense of security. We’re supposed to go into this film with our own masks of dull surprise firmly in place. Now shut up and eat more popcorn. Consume!

Awkward Social Interaction, the Motion Picture (2011)
Awkward Social Interaction, the Motion Picture (2011)

I said “Fuck that,” to that kind of complacency a long time ago. That’s one of the reasons I consume a balanced diet of genre films (which we all know are the best films – thank you Eileen Jones). I hate the whimpering, whinny Shia Labeouf analogs and the no-necked, musclebound Master Race action heroes as much as the next fat, resentful nerd. But I have no more love for the Blank Slates that I’m supposed to project myself into. I’ve watched too much shitty anime. I don’t need to see another supposedly good actor (I’ll admit it – I haven’t watched any of Gosling’s other films because I’ve known I’ll hate them from their synopses – I’m not ashamed) waste his time in Clint Eastwood’s shadow. How about casting your own, Ryan?

Well, that wouldn’t have fit the film. Instead, Gosling tries to bring a sense of childlike awe to the way Our Driver regards Irene, her son, and the potential life they represent. But he only really comes alive when he’s (A) having staring contest with Benicio or (B) killing people. Our Hero, ladies and gentlemen. Yet another ruthless killing machine who dooms himself by reaching out for love. Never seen that before…outside of Twilight. (Oo-ooo…burn.)

Okay, that was low. But really, guys…what do we have here? A usual suspect. It snuck into all the cool parties in France and now it’s come to shock we poor Provencals. It does things movies used to do, like take its time and build up tension. Unfortunately, it fills the time with Meaningful Looks that are only meaningful to the people in the scene or those watching it who are easily manipulated by a synth techno score.

Significant Glancing! The Motion Picture (2011)
Significant Glancing! The Motion Picture (2011)

One that could still pass for “contemporary” in some London clubs I may or may not have wandered into at one point in the early 2000s. It draws us into the film by, right from the start, surrounding us with a driving bass beat. Like your mom’s heart as heard in utero, asking to envelop us in this world. And we let it because doing so is its own kind of comfort. Because this is all too familiar, somehow. Pedestrian. Safe. I was going to say, “This is probably the best early-80s Actionsploitation movie one could produce in 2011,” except it’s not nearly violent enough.

Why are people going on about its so-called “shocking” violence? What we see is short and obviously truncated to avoid the ratings board. I’m pretty sure Refn is Lars Von Trier’s mirror universe counterpart, what with the slow motion zoom-ins on completely pointless scenes, the bleak outlook on his characters, and the violence that only shocks if you haven’t watched horror movies. That elevator scene, in particular, put me in mind of Antichrist. Now, if Gosling and Irene had started going all the way in that elevator, to the understandable shock of an increasingly flummoxed hitman, then we might’ve had something here…

So it’s a good movie you probably won’t like it as much as some people think you should. Or maybe you’ll love it. I don’t know. Me, I’m going back to my monster movies, my Steve McQueen, and my continual disappointment with the films of 2011. Some flicks move me, inspiring (even at their worst) some kind of emotional response. Thanks to its stripped-down, archetype-filled landscape, as familiar (to me) as it was predictable, Drive was not one of those. A moment of the shittiest giant robot movie every made fills me with more passion than all ninety-eight of Drive‘s. Maybe I’m just not a real human being.

But then again…are you?


And one more portrait: The State of Modern Movie Criticism (2011)
And one more portrait: The State of Modern Movie Criticism (2011)

9 thoughts on “Drive (2011)”

  1. Hey David,
    I loved this review.
    I, like you, didn’t like Drive as much as I was routinely being told to by every other person on the planet, so, I have to say, your review came as a bit of welcome fresh air.
    I came at it from a different angle but ultimately came to the same conclusion. (I have written a blog about it too and it is featured in the podcast on Monday).
    You are obviously, though, far more well versed in the films and game that influence and inspire this one than I am and your review is far more considered and less reactionary, mine being solely based on me not understanding what everyone was getting so worked up about.
    Just really wanted to tell you that I love the writing, I love the video blogs, you have a good sarcastic, dead pan wit and it’s a pleasure to read, also it was really nice to find out I wasn’t alone or mental.

    1. That, right there, more than anything else, is exactly what I hope to accomplish with all this. Everyone within range of these words, know this: you are not insane. You don’t have to turn your brain off. You don’t have to lower your standards. You don’t have to let “good enough” become the new “fucking awesome.” Everyone else might tell you to, but they’re just scared we’ll ruin their fun. They literally don’t know from fun, or how much fun thinking can be.

      I should clarify though, before anyone “well, actually”s me: I have no direct evidence Nicolas Winding Refn has ever played a video game in his life, never mind that particular entry in the Grand Theft Auto series. While that pink text immediately triggered a deep sense memory, it was entirely my own. If I were ten years older, I’m sure it would trigger exactly the kind of 1980s Nostalgia its engendered in so many others.

  2. I found this movie to be pretty damn flat and I probably enjoy it a lot less than you do Dave. The interaction between The Driver, the girlfriend and her son was so rigid and boring. What was even more painful was the excessively long beats inbetween dialogue that had me tapping my fingers on the arm rest. Lastly, that god awful, faux, 80’s techno shit music made me want to wretch. I hardly blinked at the gore but it felt like a cop out as well as the happy ending as well.

    Personally what I was hoping for was a homage to Bullit or French Connection but what did I get ? Michael Mann’s leftovers.

    1. That’s a good one. “Michael Mann’s leftovers.” Good enough to steal, should this movie ever come up in conversation. I suppose I’ve been “lucky” enough to participate in more rigid, boring social interactions, but they didn’t test my patience nearly as much as Our Driver’s inevitably poor decision making powers.

      1. Thanks. I always use it when I talk about this film. XD

        And when I say rigid and boring, what I really mean is the acting and not the chraracters. Sure, people can be pretty damn boring in real life but good god, I saw more emotion from cardboard boxes than from Driver.

        1. I’ve heard him compared to everything from a Ken Doll to a human incarnation of the animal that shares his last name. Geese aren’t exactly known for their great range.

  3. After finishing up the Batman podcast you guest starred (spoke?) on with AMD, I decided to peruse your archives for a quick read before heading back to work. Lo, I find that you’ve reviewed ‘Drive’!

    I was actually very surprised, since in the brief time I’ve been following your media and such, I never imagined this to be a movie that would spark your interest. That immediately implanted a foreboding mood in my head, and of course I’m too goddamned awesome to be wrong.

    I hope this doesn’t make you think less of me: ‘Drive’ is my second favorite movie. Second only to ‘Aliens’ for this bearded man-child. I didn’t have even an inkling of what the movie was about until sometime in March this year I was at a pub with a friend and ‘Nightcall’ by Kavinsky came on the speakers, and I was immediately intrigued (as you put it, I’m quite easily manipulated by a synth techno score). After an intense round of exploiting my sharpened detective skills, I found out it was featured in ‘Drive’. Or my friend told me. One of those two.

    That night I went home and watched it. And then immediately watched it again, the wee hours of the morning silently dabbing the blackish/blue tint under my eyes in even strokes as if Bob Ross’ spirit where there with me. I immediately and wholeheartedly fell in love with the movie. And I believe the reason(s) I so did are because of inherent differences in who we are, from the little I know of you, Sir David. Aye, we have vast similarities in our taste, this I know for sure, and why I’ve become a fan of your media.

    But sunuvabitch, do I love me a good sappy love story. Of course it’s a common motive in films, but I appreciate it here and there. The silent, longing looks that Gosling and Mulligan share make me giddy all inside my internal organs, and for a little bit when watching the movie, I don’t feel so meme-ishly Forever Alone.

    I love that you point out Gosling acting within Eastwood’s shadow in the movie, and I totally agree that it’s happening…but I LURV it. I’m a sucker for dialogue-less, no name protagonists. Hell, I’m a sucker for dialogue-less, no name characters period. This definitely comes from my video game background, my original and truest love, followed closely by the novel and the film. Thus your Vice City comments most righteously resonate within me, and I definitely agree with your thoughts on that game. I DIGRESS.

    I enjoyed Gosling’s take on the Man with No Name, and if they do make the rumored sequel I look forward to seeing the changes Gosling makes to keep it fresh a second time around. In fact, after each viewing of the movie, I can’t help but feel The Driver, as presented by Gosling, could make an awesome comics character, but I know next to nothing about that world in comparison to you, so I’ll reserve that judgment for later when you’re not looking. (I am learning, though, by god I’m learning!) Would I like to see Gosling cast his own shadow, as you so eloquently put it? Of course! But am I happy with what I got in ‘Drive’? Beyond happy.

    While I do think that the violence in the movie could’ve been way crazier (I definitely agree with you on the whole ‘what’s the big deal?’ thing about the word of mouth), I rather liked the limited but strategic use of it. I agree that the ratings system forces many hands to create shit via the limitations, but I don’t feel that’s what happened in ‘Drive’. I know this is going to be a strange sentence, I’ve thought about it for about 2.5 minutes, but I’m still going to type it and I’m probably going to regret it: I felt that the violence used was quite tasteful. And don’t get me wrong, I love me a good slasher flick (blood boner?).

    This movie single-handedly gave the noir genre (and all of its sub-genres, like ‘Drive’ is technically in, so people tell me) intrigue in my mind, and noir has never been something to garner my interest. Now I’m rolling down the hill with the classics, appreciating games I wouldn’t have such as LA Noir, and finding an even deeper appreciation for set staples in my life, such as…the Batman.

    The technical aspects of the film are another reason I so enjoy it. I rewind the beginning of the elevator scene just to see that lighting shift over and over and over. The camera set up in the interior car scenes is simple and lovely…probably just because of Gosling, though.

    I realize all I’ve been doing is gushing over this movie, but I can’t help it…there’s a reason I put it at #2. So I’ll attempt to un-gush a bit. I chortled when I read Ricardo’s “Michael Mann’s leftovers” comment, and I totally get that. But I guess it goes hand in hand with the whole Gosling/Eastwood thing for me, since I adore Michael Mann, and with ‘Collateral’ being up there in my favorites list as well. Un-gushing has been a failure. I apologize.

    What it comes down to is that there are things in my life that I adore far too much to be objective about. ‘Drive’ is one of them, as are beards, the Packers, Hideo Kojima plots, Dominos chicken wings, and so much more.

    I have no idea what the point of this entire comment was supposed to be, besides an extended cut of my unsolicited opinion. It just happened, and I accept responsibility for it. But I did want to echo AMD’s words in that your reviews are very enjoyable, the writing superbly entertaining and gripping…even when it opposes my views.

    1. And that goes both ways, Matthew. I could never think less of anyone who gushes about a film – any film – with such enthusiasm. I’ll admit, Drive was nowhere close to my radar (hype be damned – and Drive’s kind of hype is exactly the kind I’m most turned off by: the kind that comes out of Film Festivals) until a copy fell off a back of truck and into my P.O. box. I couldn’t not review it: it was the It Movie of August, 2011. And I appreciate your appreciation of it, despite not being able to share in it. I can, however, help foster that appreciation of classic noir, since I’d been meaning to do that for awhile anyway…though don’t ask me when just yet. There’s still half a Bond series to go.

  4. the ultimate existentialist take on DRIVING remains “Two Lane Blacktop”
    –it’s also the major influence on THIS movie, GTA notwithstanding.

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