Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac
Strong choices often leave audiences at odds with a movie. “Drive” seems to be a film defined by its choices. Some will see it as an amazing, stylish noir thriller. Others will think it’s a laughable mess. The great thing about “Drive” is that its strong choices are eliciting strong reactions. Many critics are calling it the best film of the year. The audience I saw it with spent much of the time laughing at the most intense moments. The film ends up being neither an instant classic, or an unmitigated disaster but an awkward, identity-challenged thriller.
I mention strong choices, but I think that requires a little clarification. What I mean are the kind of deliberate, intentionally staged moments that filmmakers use to try and make their movie stand out. “Drive” is full of these attempts. It features a 1980s-style synthesizer-laden soundtrack, which feels strangely removed from the modern staging of the story. The main character, played by Ryan Gosling, is a nameless protagonist only referenced as “Driver.” Many scenes are choreographed in slow motion and seem to hang for an eternity. Strong choices aren’t always a bad thing, but they can be distracting. “Drive” is full of these distractions, so much so it almost feels like the audience is watching a series of interconnected music videos rather than a feature film.
The story centers on Driver who spends his days doing stunt work for movies. In his off time, he’s a wheelman for petty criminals. He gives his clients a nice little speech before each job, informing them that they have five minutes to avail themselves of his services and that’s it. He doesn’t carry a gun, and he doesn’t do anything other than drive. It’s a nifty little bit of business, but it feels lifted right out of “The Transporter” films. Still, it helps establish Driver as a no-nonsense kind of guy.
He has no social life to speak of, falling into that “quiet loner” category. Things change when he meets his next door neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son, Benecio (Kaden Leos). He takes a shining to them both and begins to insert himself into their lives. His actions seem well-intentioned, although a little creepy. His imaginary family runs into complications when Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Issac) gets released from prison. Standard comes out owing some people a lot of money, and the threats of violence are extended to Irene and Benecio. In order to make things square, Driver agrees to help Standard with a pawn-shop hold-up to help pay back his debts.
As with all criminal schemes, things get hectic, go haywire, and people end up real dead, real fast. A simple pawn-shop stab-and-grab has turned into a million-dollar heist of some mob money. These kind of story beats are so telegraphed—such predictable fare expected of a crime thriller. Rather than navigate new territory, Nicolas Refn slathers everything in style and ends up with a pretty average director’s reel. Some of the scenes are interesting, but there’s an intentional disregard for depth. “Drive” is a movie of surfaces—sometimes violent, sometimes ambient and only interesting about 50 percent of the time.
Ryan Gosling plays Driver like a well-intentioned sociopath. He’s easily the most interesting actor of his generation, but he has to play most of the movie like he’s genetically predisposed to underreact. Carey Mulligan breezes through the role of being the only character with a moral compass. Albert Brooks hams it up as a criminal kingpin who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. In the absence of any real storytelling or character progression, the characters end up being the glue that holds this whole enterprise together.
What makes and breaks “Drive” is the strong choices. By opting for style over substance, we end up with a visceral experience that never delivers anything significant. The whole affair feels like 45 minutes of story spread to 90 minutes. There isn’t enough paint to fill the canvas.
I think Refn is a filmmaker with promise, but he’s too mired in crafting those “ain’t it cool” moments rather than constructing a strong narrative. I’d be lying if I said pulling off style is easy. It makes me think back to other films with bold themes and attempts at outside-the-box filmmaking. I’m reminded of directors like Marc Webb (“(500) Days of Summer”) and Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) who are known for crafting movies with strong style, but both make movies with memorable characters and defined personas, too. Refn seems to have the style down. Next time he should spend a little more on the substance.