Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is the kind of movie that makes you almost instantly want to watch a better one. In this case, for me, that better one is Sidney Lumet’s swan song masterpiece Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Both films involve bad men dealing with even worse men, revolve around a crime gone horribly wrong and are both modern day reincarnations of the darkened and hardened crime films of the 70s and 80s(some of which Lumet himself masterminded).

But where the difference lies is that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was about more than the crime. It was about the implications, the aftermaths, the consequences of being stuck in a horrible situation to which there is no simple escape and to which the easiest option is to dig oneself even deeper into the murk. When the shock and awe, the hard talk, the sudden bursts of violence and the fierce tough guy posturing came to a crashing halt, left behind in its wake were damaged men who had bitten off more than they could chew and didn't know what to do about it.

Refn sets himself on the way to the same kind of payoff with Drive but then he stops almost destructively short as he builds towards no payoff in particular. Here is a polished and well made film (as well made as any other crime odyssey that comes to mind) that is all posturing. The film sneers, flexes it’s muscle, exists under the subtle and haunting thump of slow motion images playing under pounding retro 80s synth pop and does not, for any one second, give you any reason to care about a single thing that is going on in it. If you want to get a cheap lesson in pure film style without the burden of enrolment costs, Drive might be right up your alley. If it is, however, depth, compassion, or something that resembles anything slightly human, Drive feels like it is mostly grinding gears.

Ryan Gosling plays the Driver. He has no name, which is about right as he is all business and procedure. By day he’s a mechanic and Hollywood stunt man. By night he’s the getaway driver for lowly crooks. He lives by his defined set of rules: he doesn’t carry a gun, he’ll give you five minutes in which he is all yours, a minute too much on either side and he’s gone. And all he does, period, is drive.

He works for Shannon (Breaking Bad’s Brian Cranston) who runs a garage, sets up the Driver’s stunt work and walks with the kind of limp that suggests that the shop probably isn't his sole source of income. He wants a loan to buy a race car which the Driver can drive and make them lots of money.

He approaches Rose (Albert Brooks in a long overdue dramatic role) for a payout and gets it. Rose is some kind of guy. Brooks brings something unassuming to the surface of the role, but this is the kind of man whose words speak louder than his actions. “My hands are kind of dirty” the Driver says when Rose extends it for a shake. “It’s okay”, Rose replies. “So are mine.”

Rose is business partners with a hothead named Nino (Ron Pearlman). Somehow, for reasons too convoluted to explain, the Driver takes a job to help out the recently released husband of his neighbour (Cary Mulligan) who he’s taken quite a shine to. The job gets botched, people end up dead, and the Driver ends up with a bag full of Nino’s money.

So goes the set-up which leads the somewhat effective and haunting opening scenes into a conclusion that is populated by short bursts of brutal graphic violence as the Driver and Rose both square off in an attempt to be the last man standing.

All of this, once again, brings to mind the hard-boiled, murky crime pictures of the 70s and 80s from Walter Hill’s The Driver to Michael Mann’s Thief. But where the film falters is in how content it is to simply get by with just being confined to homage. In terms of genre recreation, Refn does an excellent job, going through the motions from the slow tracking cameras, the tight two-shots, the suspense created not through unending stimulation but by taking a static scene and cutting between three or four set objects while tension mounts on the soundtrack. If nothing else, Drive does let us remember a time when action allowed us to breathe a little.

But the film never quite achieves anything more. Are we at the point in film history where films are praised for their ability to pay homage to a time when movies weren’t so bad? Is seeing something different that stands apart from the over stimulation of today’s action films so rare that we’ll heap praise upon the first one that seems destined to take a different approach? But homage is, at its worst, an ironic post-modern reconstruction of the spare parts of great films gone by. Where Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, to continue with the same example, took the elements and created something new and thrilling with them, Drive’s saving grace is that its irony doesn’t come served with the wink and smirk of most of today’s attempts at homage.

So what do we make of Drive? Who is it supposed to appeal to? What does it want to achieve except show one filmmaker's attempt to mask a shallow story with his ability to recreate the essence of genre’s past? Drive is an exceptionally well made film with a clear vision of what it should look and feel like; filled with good performances, knuckle grinding action in the tradition of the classic car chase movies, a bumping soundtrack and a lot of spilled blood. And then it ends, leaving you in no better or worse shape than when it came to you, to which you nod, give it some points for ambition and then walk away with the realization that the history is far more compelling than the history lesson.


  1. I wasn't in love with this film like so many others were but I did enjoy the style and how Gosling played "The Driver" so well with barely saying anything. However, I just wish they said more throughout this whole film. Nice review Mike.

  2. Thank you. I agree with every single thing you said, but I don't agree with your star rating -- given your words, it sounds more like a 2.5 or maybe a 3 than a 3.5. (We've talked star ratings before, so never mind.)

    It's funny, when you commented on one of my posts about Drive, I thought you'd already seen it and agreed with my other commenter, who loved it. (Maybe you had, and only just wrote the review now.) It's really empty at its core, and there's some stuff that is so shamelessly style only that it's simply inexcusable. For example, what was the point of him putting on his stunt double mask in order to go after Rose? It gained him no advantage whatsoever -- one can only conclude that it was included because Refn thought it would make an arresting visual. He was right, but that's not enough of a reason.

  3. Vance - Yes, the mask scene where Gosling walks up to the front door of the pizza place and we see him coming through one square in the front door serves really no purpose other than to capture that moment. I also thought the music, although good, was a bit too smothing. For a movie that has an almost silent hero, it sure didn't want to let very many scenes play out in silence.

    As for the rating. It's one of those cases where just because I didn't connect with the movie doesn't mean I shouldn't give it the credit it deserves. Drive does, after all, achieve everything it sets out to do, even if that didn't connect with me.

  4. You're a very good writer, and you make a very good case. I, however, need to finish watching the film.

    You do pose one rhetorical question that got me thinking: "are we at the point in film history where films are praised for their ability to pay homage to a time when movies weren’t so bad?" My answer is 'yes'; and as such, I tip my proverbial cap to anyone who can reproduce a good gritty 80's crime movie.