Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive

Bold Films, Odd Lot Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions, Seed Productions

STARRING Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac
WRITTEN BY Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis
PRODUCED BY Michael Litvak, John Palermo, Marc Platt, Gigi Pritzker, Adam Siegel
DIRECTED BY Nicolas Winding Refn

SHOT BY Newton Thomas Sigel
EDITED BY Matthew Newman
MUSIC BY Cliff Martinez

Screened 2011-09-06

Well. They’re talking about it, I’m talking about it, you’ll likely talk about it. I feel like I’m sitting on a big secret just for having seen this. But yes. Mmm. That one stayed in my system until noon the next day… Tasty. Tasty, but I don’t know if I’d be comfortable giving it more than 3/5. See it in the theater, to be sure. Bit of an odd one – lots of fun to watch, and elicited wonderful reactions from the audience… but I was ever aware I was watching a derivative genre exercise and indeed that pacing slackened precipitously at times. You might even say it’s “dated.” The most satisfying moments are the ones in which the viewer is reeling in Gosling’s intensity. He stands larger than life. It’s really a fantasy film, we are not watching reality. Interaction and emotion are inspired by abstractions. An experimental driver film. Sure.

Producer Marc Platt approached Ryan Gosling, and Gosling was given the opportunity to approach a director with the project – his first choice was former Copenhagenian Nicolas Winding Refn and few will complain. I only know Refn from one of 2008’s best, the bravura Bronson – just now realized 2009’s Valhalla Rising is attributable to Refn, and that one was avoided because of the big muscular ancient old warrior man on the DVD’s American cover (Bronson’s not dissimilar cover image was a minor distraction). And Drive‘s story is clearly beneath the actor and director: Hollywood stunt driver by day, freelance getaway driver by night, an attempt to go straight, a botched robbery, vengeance, tense phone calls, blood & gore, a large pile of money. Do I even need to detail the story? Just dropping those choice words should be enough. We’re never as happy as when we’re watching Gosling radiate his silent confidence – silent and direct as one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s criminals.

Occasionally Refn’s fantastical ‘turn-based dialogue’ is tough to swallow, and occasionally we wonder why the NPCs (non-player characters – more RPG vernacular, sorry) sit and silently watch and wait as Gosling does his spotlight routine. But usually what’s going on around it is so enjoyable we don’t give a damn. Drive‘s greatest strength, then, is also a large detractor, and this lies in Refn’s desire to ‘archetypitize’ (not a word) the story – according to Wikipedia (I’m sorry) he was inspired here by fairy tales. So every character is Jack, every villain is a Giant, every movement is a stanza.

Carey Mulligan. While I’m sure she enjoyed herself, the poor thing spent most of her screentime staring silently at Gosling, wanting us to see the tenderness beneath those ever-watery eyes of hers, or moping around her stylish proletariat LA apartment. I later read that her role was originally written for an early-20’s Latina, but I damn well sensed it during the screening – particularly when Gosling surprises her at work and we see that she is a waitress at a crappy LA diner… They had me going until I saw Carey in that uniform. Too pretty. Too much in control of her emotions. My conclusion: Mulligan was cast to romanticize and thusly archetypitize the relationship between her character and The Unnamed Driver. I frankly see no reason to do any star-crossing – for a criminal who genuinely wants to escape crimelife, a way out is a way out. And I’ll say something about Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks: hammy and expected. Not unwelcome. No need to elaborate. And no need to say anything at all about Bryan Cranston, who gets enough attention.

Drive is marketed to sell: hot genre flick with equally hot actor, and Christina Hendricks (who’s on screen for perhaps less than 10 minutes). What the marketers are happy to tell you, but terrified to explain, is that Drive won the Best Director award at 2011’s Cannes Film Festival. It is perhaps the most commercially viable auteur exercise I’ve ever seen – and I’ll tell you, the audience loved it. Further reviews reveal that all audiences are loving it. Again: see this in the theater. It is a highly stylized Los Angeles noir experience. See the night and the landscape defined by the million electric dots, see the bleached curves of Topanga Canyon during a chase. Movement is explicitly choreographed, characters move in and out of pools of light just for the camera – but we never care. It’s really a very attractive film.

There are more than a few qualities of this film which brought ‘Tarantino’ to mind… Tarantino, perhaps, if he attempted to be more earnest than entertaining (a direction I hope he avoids), and perhaps as such was not able to hold our attention quite as long. There will be words spoken about the film’s excessive and abrupt moments of violence & gore (everybody loved those). The romantic scenes between Gosling and Mulligan were, I thought, drawn-out, but I’ll concede that a hot drive may just be the best date one could have. Refn is earnest but the story is derivative, so there are moments in which he feel the film’s length (and it isn’t even long). The style that Refn oozes cannot make up for the fact that behind those images we’re lingering on is a story each one of us knows by heart.

I really don’t want to sound too excited – I don’t even necessarily want to watch it again – but I daresay this is why people go to movies. I’d go into more detail but I don’t want to spoil the good parts. There are a few scenes which bleed. Gosling always holds us rapt – he’s earned this. There he stands. Everybody is going to love him for this.

written by David Ashley