by Tony Dayoub
Awright, what movie did everyone else see? Because the overhyped Drive is a shallow film as hollow as its cardboard characters. Yes, I said "characters," with an "s." Not simply content to make his nameless lead character — the Driver (Ryan Gosling), we'll call him (as the press materials do) — a cipher, director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) populates his film with empty, soulless vessels doubling for actual people. There's the nice-girl-who-got-involved-with-the-wrong-guy, the older-version-of-our-lead-who-sports-a-symbolically-loaded-disability, the down-on-his-luck-ex-con-who-wants-to-get-out-after-one-last-job, etc. (If I'm not careful, this whole review may degenerate into a series of etceteras.) In this world, style overrides substance, surface trumps depth, and personalities are so thin that the existence of the story's players seems to cease whenever they disappear offscreen.
During the day, Gosling's unnamed protagonist earns his pay in Hollywood, as The Stunt Man behind the wheel in all those car chases one sees at the movies. At night, he drives the getaway car for small-scale heists set up by his mentor, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a mechanic and once a stunt driver himself who had his pelvis broken by Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), partners behind many of L.A.'s underworld dealings. The Driver thinks he's safe from getting his hands dirty by adhering to his own set of rules: never wait for any of his partners-in-crime for more than 5 minutes, don't carry a gun, and don't work with the same clients twice. Things get complicated when the Driver meets Irene, a mom raising her son alone while waiting for her hubby Standard (Oscar Isaac) to get out of prison. An early release for Standard — who owes some protection money to some guys back in the joint — forces the Driver to work for this common Thief in order to protect the ex-convict and his family. Soon the Driver's working with femme fatale Blanche (Christina Hendricks) just to stay alive as the inevitable Murphy's Law of Crime sets in, "Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong."
Okay, I get it. Drive is Refn's homage to the nihilistic 1980s action films of Michael Cimino, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, Walter Hill, and Michael Mann, to name a few. But whoever said art will eat itself only got it half-right. In some cases it regurgitates what it ate to lesser effect. Drive is like a copy of a copy, imitating the work of directors whose own films paid tribute to auteurs that came before them. Take Mann, for instance. His films are just as concerned with process as it is with the protagonist engaged in that process, like the way Frank breaks into a vault in Thief. Refn shows Gosling tooling around with a car's engine without ever focusing on what he is actually doing to it. Similar movies in this vein — those following lone criminal professions dragged down by existential angst — are usually catnip for me. Last year's The American and Steven Soderbergh's The Limey (1999) at least play off of meta-textual associations between their respective titular characters and the actors playing them. But Gosling is way too young to carry any such baggage yet. And unlike the work of Quentin Tarantino who has often been similarly accused of stealing from other films, Refn is too on the nose with his tribute. While Tarantino tends to favor slightly off-center auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard (foreign) or Jack Hill (grindhouse/exploitation), Refn targets well-known mainstream filmmakers. This might fly over the head of some of Drive's younger audience, which I must believe is the only explanation for why so few have called this film out. But I not only saw these movies, I lived through them, and hardly a one would I rather not see than Drive, which only served as a constant reminder for me to go searching for one DVD or another when I got back home from the theater.
While I'm sure Refn is aiming for a certain measure of existentialism, populating the story with archetypes rather than actual flesh-and-blood humans, the vacuum left by these folks when they simply exit screen-right is frustrating. Faring the best is Brooks, whose Bernie Rose is a former producer, now crime kingpin, with ice-water for blood. The Driver's paramour, Irene, fares the worst, often appearing simply to remind us the Driver has something more to live for. The banal dialogue — and Refn's propensity to hold a beat too long on the silence after each line is curtly spoken — is not only Drive's reminder of its artificial world (as it's meant to be), but verges on parodying the very movies it purports to be tipping its hat to. In one elevator scene, Refn holds on a backlit kiss between the Driver and Irene just a bit too long before the Driver turns around to beat a threatening thug to death. As Irene backs out of the elevator in shock, she notices the frenzied look in the Driver's eyes before the doors shut, erasing her from view. And poof, she's gone! Back to the movie for us, and Irene is forgotten until Refn needs her again.
In a movie full of references which should be simplistic to anyone who's seen its smarter predecessors, Drive's most clever reference may be the casting of Cranston, who once starred as a man with a terminal condition that would kick in if he moved any slower than 55 m.p.h. in The X-Files episode also called "Drive." But I doubt Refn was hip to his own joke. It's not obvious enough.