Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Drive (2011)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Movie Review: Drive (2011)

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.


James Hansen said...

There's an excellent interview with Refn, which engages with many of your criticisms, I think. Worth a read for those interested.

That said, the Cannes jury (if not many of the critics who love the film) are hardly the "young audience" you dismiss here. I wouldn't be so hasty to chalk it up to unaware youth.

I also think there's much more to the characters through small tensions around the surface. They may be simple and archetypical, but they are hardly cardboard. And, as far as process goes, I really think the opening chase through LA is key to the film. (Self-promotion) - I talk about it specifically in my review.

Anyways, I imagine we're engaging with this pretty differently, which would probably just lead to cross talk. Interesting to read your hang ups though.

Tony Dayoub said...

Responded at your blog, also, but I wanted to acknowledge that I thought I might open myself up to some criticism in attributing some of what I consider wrong-headed criticism about the film to "younger" critics. I'm not sure I'd change my opinion about that based on the Cannes jury. There are many reasons films get prizes, prestigious festival or not.

Haven't got time to read Refn's interview right now, but I will. I'll respond here if it sparks anything.

Chase Kahn said...

Hmmm...I don't know. I saw a film that was brutal yet elegant, hardened yet chic and almost always white-knuckle, hold-your-breathe tense.

And I'm really surprised to hear someone be so put-off be the film's obvious throwback aesthetics. The kind of which Tarantino revels in FAR more intently.

And of course these characters are archetypes of varying degrees, but the film is so sparsely conventional from a formal standpoint, the script so stripped-down, that we hardly notice.

Aden Jordan said...

As I tweeted earlier, most of the critics I like (you, Glenn Kenny, Kenneth Turan, and Anthony Lane) seemed underwhelmed by this film, which has been gaining a lot of positive buzz.

The film is definitely far more on the side of style than substance, and there's no real thematic need for the electro-pop score and the '80s neon pink font. Those elements and most of the film simply look cool for the sake of being cool.

Personally, I did care about Gosling's character and Cranston's character while still being aware of how superficially they and the rest of the characters are developed. There are no profound themes or ideas in the film, just a very simple revenge story.

It's a simple, superficial film, but I still found it exciting and gripping. There are some great action pieces in "Drive", and I was often very shocked by the film's level of violence. The book by Sallis has more detail, and the driver is more fully developed (there are also differences in the plot). Refn's version is more exciting and for whatever reason I cared more about the film protagonist than the book's (which says something to me as someone familiar with the source material).

I do like your review, and who knows, my opinion might change over time.

The Siren said...

Tony, it's interesting to me that we sort of took the opposite tack about the hype. I assumed that most of the people writing from Cannes *were* picking up on all the references, and that's part of why they were wallowing in the film.

Your point about the dialogue is quite true in a number of spots, although the exchanges worked for me when Brooks when was on screen, as indeed Drive worked better for me any time the minor characters (the boy, the husband, Blanche, hell, even the stoic strippers) were on screen. I'm glad you also thought the kiss went on too long; I might have bought it if there were a well of untapped passion behind it but, well, you know how I felt about the love story.

Tony Dayoub said...

Chase, I completely disagree on this point, "...the film is so sparsely conventional from a formal standpoint..." Much of what I found imitative about the movie are many of the formal touches which he cribs from the other directors I mentioned in my review. Refn seemed to pour the majority of his effort on restaging some iconic shots from those films instead of bolstering the weak script. Neither full on parody or tribute, it's a watered down mess.

Tony Dayoub said...


I'm probably coming off as harsher than I meant to with this pan. I don't think Refn is untalented, and I like Gosling, Hendricks, even Mulligan. Love Brooks and Isaac. But the movie seems to be burdened by an excess of unwarranted hype. Had I seen it in a vacuum my reaction to it might be far different.

Tony Dayoub said...

Siren, I respond in greater detail at your site (where the Siren writes an uncharacteristic review of a just-released film which echoes much of what I feel) to your comment about holding things a bit too long. Your own post's highlighting of Mulligan's slap particularly resonates with me in this respect.

Aden Jordan said...

I didn't find your review to be overly harsh. I think the issues you have with the film are understandable, accurate, and on point.

The hype for the movie is very high, and sadly it will probably find some kind of "Fight Club" or "Boondock Saints" level of appreciation by people who like cool movies but don't know about the better ones this film borrows from ("Thief" in particular).

Also, for me personally, the last Refn film I saw was "Valhalla Rising" which was a total mess so that added to my low expectations going into this one.

Aden Jordan said...

One thing that most reviews I've read about "Drive" have avoided mentioning is something that points to just how implausible a lot of the film is, and that is how rarely the police enter into this crime film. The Gosling character avoids the police at the start of the film, and some nameless police officers speak to the Mulligan character after the big job goes wrong. Other than that? I don't remember seeing any other police in the film which is pretty implausible considering how many bodies start piling up as the story progresses. Anyway, it's something that was bothering me after reflecting on the film last night, and something that a director like Mann or Friedkin obviously wouldn't let slide.

Sam Juliano said...

Tony, I don't think I have ever diosagreed with you more on a film in the times I've been enriched here at CINEMA VIEWFINDER, but in the end it matters not as I always greatly benefit by my visits to these hallowed halls.

This film was anything but shallow and hollow, and it speaks with visual poetry that few films, much less Hollywood ones do these days. I saw much more David Lynch in this than I did Michael Mann (and Frederick Elmes and Angelo Badalamenti for that matter). In any case for me this is a five-star masterpiece, and one of the best films of the year, an existential, expressionistic mood piece with remarkable direction and pacing and a deep sense of urgency and inevitablity tinged with a deep melancholia.

The violence is intense and often stomach turning, but there’s a purpose here; I always argued that Mann was all style over substance, in this film style and substance are wed superlatively.

Gosling and Brooks are brilliant, and Mulligan is engaging, but the unsung hero of the piece is composer Cliff Martinez whose score is nothing less than electrifying, utilyzing some foreboding new age themes with terrific songs.

Utterly remarkable direction by Nicholas Winding Refn, who used slow motion to profound and mesmerizing effect throughout. I think he should teach a course on how to use this technique meaningfully.

I can see why the film may be absorbing and alienating at the same time, (Tony Dayoub falls in the latter category in a sense) but I found the former quality as the dominant one, and in the end am willing to accept the symbolic blood-letting. The lack of love and heroism can be applied to the film's existential underpinnings, and frankly I am happy that this goes so much further than any other Hollywood movie.

This is one instance where the spectacular reviews the film has received across the board are warranted and fitting. I don't see the concensus as "hype" but as genuine effusive enthusiasm, that at least in this instance is dead on.

Needless to say as always a thought-provoking review here Tony, regardless of where you stand on the film.

Chase Kahn said...

I don't think it's a weak script - after sitting through "The Mechanic" and "Colombiana" recently, it was refreshing to see such a stripped-down, modest approach. I loved that the character of Driver was revealed through simple observation, silence and the harsh eruptions of violence. I could have watched Gosling just drive around L.A. talking to different people for two hours. (I don't think people would criticize that Steve McQueen was detrimentally underwritten in "Bullitt".)

So anyways, the script certainly isn't the star, but I don't think it's weak, either - it allows the film to breathe.

Tony Dayoub said...

Sam, thanks again for stopping by. Regarding your point about Lynch, Elmes and Badalamenti, and seeing more of them in the movie than Mann, I'd like to see you support that with some kind of example, because I don't see it. And of all the filmmakers I'm fond of and well-versed in, you just happened to pick the two I know the most about. Beyond Newton Thomas Sigel's stunning cinematography which does somewhat resemble Elmes's work for Lynch in WILD AT HEART, I just don't see what you mean.

As for Mann being "more style than substance" that kind of criticism may work when discussing the MIAMI VICE TV series where his involvement was limited. But like I explained earlier, Mann explores his characters through their professional technique. And though such scenes may be free of dialogue, it doesn't mean that we aren't learning something deeply important about his heroes, i.e. the way Neil McCauley (De Niro) cases a potential target before he robs it in HEAT, my previous example of Caan's Frank breaking into a vault in THIEF, etc.

Anyway, I respect your opinion, but I think when reminded of this year's releases you would relent in comparing the caliber of DRIVE to that of some of this year's other potential top films, BEGINNERS, CERTIFIED COPY, MEEK'S CUTOFF, TREE OF LIFE, etc.

Tony Dayoub said...

Chase, I think you equate my characterization of DRIVE's script as weak with a desire for more dialogue. And nothing could be further than the truth. Some of my favorite filmmakers and films use visuals to fill out a character. I'd point you to many of the movies and directors I've already cited above and in comments, but here are some others, Antonioni, Bergman Kubrick, Leone, Melville; and films like POINT BLANK, LE SAMOURAI, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, and yes, even BULLITT, all of which share similar protagonists with this films. My problems with the pregnant pauses is that they weren't really pregnant with any meaning. They were just vacuums of the kind you'd find in some childlike MAD LIBS book where the story can take on any meaning depending on who's filling the blanks. Art should be open to interpretation, but the difference here is that there's nothing at the heart of DRIVE to be interpreted. The viewer is being enlisted not just to discern the meaning, but supply it.

jim emerson said...

You write that DRIVE "verges on parodying the very movies it purports to be tipping its hat to." That's exactly the feeling I had. At least Driver didn't actually repeat the story of the frog and the scorpion at the end.

Tony Dayoub said...

Jim, thanks for highlighting this point. I haven't seen anyone else make it, but I'm certain many on both sides of the DRIVE fence have felt as you and I have on this particular aspect of the film.

I look forward to reading at length about your reaction to the film at Scanners.

Sam Juliano said...


Several others have supported the Lynchian statement, (Craig at THE MAN FROM PORLOCK just corroborated at his place in a response to a comment I made under his review that there "are definitely some Lynchian toches in there")which has much to do with the surreal touches, the under the surface depravity, the discordant and cryptic motivations, the the dissolves, and the bizarre plot jumps. I must say I see Lunch all over the place here, far more than I see Mann. I don't at all doubt your grasp and experience with the director which is far more than my own, but I am nonetheless surprised you don't see the persuasive Lynchian influences here throughout both in character and lot, as well as in visual textures. Even Gosling's explosive character seems written right out of the Lynchian playbook. But if you don't see it yourself, fair enough, I'm just relating what I observed while watching the film.

As far as best films of the year,you may be right that I will eventually relent with DRIVE. I guess it all comes down to how well it stays the course in time.

I was no fan of MEEK'S CUTOFF, but I agree with you on CERTIFIED COPY as a most impressive film.

But my favorites to this point aside from DRIVE in no particular order would be:

Jane Eyre
The Tree of Life
Of Gods and Men
Bal (Honey)
Win Win
Winter Before Wartime
Uncle Boonme

Bob Clark said...

My immediate impression-- oh, for fuck's sake. My slightly less immediate impression-- handsomely shot and framed, good lighting but a rather boring color palate (those pink credits made me wish that color were in the film itself), hyperindulgent in homage to 80's cinema and Mann especially (really, that supermarket scene was a little on the nose, wasn't it?), but what kills it is threefold. It's overly reliant on a threadbare, nauseatingly sentimental story between Gosling and Mulligan, who spend the movie doing their best impressions of store mannequins exchanging meaningful glances and pregnant pauses, and between the two of them might share about the same amount of dialogue as Arnold Schwarzenegar in "The Terminator". It tries to stretch that hand-me-down three-hanky crime story as long as humanly possible until the action gets in gear, and then goes overboard in compensating for the tension with loads of hardcore violence and gore, of which almost none has anything to do with driving itself, despite the fact that the film builds itself on that premise for all its intrigue (there's only three chase set-pieces in the film-- one is a good tease of cat-and-mouse, but nothing special; the second is a lazy sports-car commercial masquerading as sup-bar Friedkin; and the third is basically extreme tailgating). Finally, the film tries to get away with all this with a tone that's so steadfastly dead serious and grandioeloquent that it strains itself to the point of self-parody, and despite the fact that it employs a limp sub-plot in the movie industry, I'm not really willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt and call it satire.

If I wanted to be kind, I'd compare the film to last year's "The American", which also strained itself trying to be a minimalist action-drama of sorts and leaned heavily on the genres of filmmakers past. That one was more focused, though, especially in its script (which felt inevitable as hell, but was still a good piece of craft), and didn't try to live beyond the means of its style, action or story. It also had an actor who could underplay his role without making it seem cheap and empty. "Drive"-- it's trying to be Mann, but missing the expressionist rationale for the style, and doesn't have nearly the substance to back it up. Moreover, it represents all the same hermetic-seal visual mannerisms that Mann himself has gone to great lengths to outgrow over the years, and at the same time doesn't offer any of the exotic flourishes that made that oppressive aesthetic choice worthwhile. This is so bland and banal, by comparison, an exquisite frame around a polaroid picture. Furthermore, it's missing the whole class thing that Mann and other similarly patterned films of the day like "Scarface" and "American Gigilo" were aiming for, with their homicidal yuppie aspirations. Even Nolan, for all his blatant "Heat" rip-offs in "The Dark Knight" and "Inception" gets more about the economics and politics of Mann in his own luxury-fetish white telephone sort of way. This film is a shallow pool of dirty water with a reflection of a bright neon side overhead showing after the ripples clear from a steel-toed boot stepping in it. I'd rather go blind staring at the neon.

Tony Dayoub said...

Yes, Bob! You're more vicious in your description of DRIVE, but yes, exactly!

Jason Bellamy said...

I suppose there's a benefit to feeling detached from the cinema world of late. I went into Drive without a clue of its reception at Cannes, and thus I didn't have to compare my reaction to anything that had been promised.

That said, I took Drive to be many of the things you criticize it for -- spare, on-the-nose, imitative -- by design. And so I came away feeling that it found substance through its style. Which isn't to imply it's void of problems -- not even close. (In fact, one of the strengths for you, Albert Brooks, is a total misfire from where I sit -- I didn't buy his toughness at all.)

When characters are as thin as they are in Drive, it's often a recipe for disappointment. But I found the atmosphere thick and invigorating, and I guess I assumed that with so little investment in character development that characters weren't really the point. Whether that response lines up with the Cannes raves, I haven't a clue, but this one will stick with me, at least for a while, even though in panning Drive you have described a film that looks very much like the one I enjoyed.

Sam Juliano said...

LOL. God, Bob gives a new meaning here to the term "pan."

Kevyn Knox said...

There are films that leave one agitated or restless and there are films that leave one in a state of calming melancholia. There are films that leave one satiated and there are films that leave one wanting more. Drive is all these things rolled into one.

I suppose we can agree to disagree but I do definitely disagree. I personally find Drive to be just this side of spectacular, and I find the characters to be (though definitely archetypes) pretty damn far from cardboard.

It would seem that the reasons I like the film so much may crossover a good deal with the reasons you seem to dislike the film so much.

C'est la Vie.

Tony Dayoub said...

"Drive is all these things rolled into one."

Yeah, Kevyn, that kind of bothers me. I don't mind films that are complex and yield different interpretations. But I found DRIVE to be scattershot in an all-things-to-all-kinds-of-people sort of way. This lack of focus, and the film's innate lack of depth has allowed for a wide variety of reactions and, IMHO, a great deal of viewer projection to fill in the gaps.

dirtywithclass said...

Hmmm, this is probably the most negative review of this movie i've read. I still want to see it tho