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.
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.
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
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?
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?
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.
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).
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!
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.
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?
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