Drive stars Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver and Hollywood stunt driver for hire. His character is never named, noted only in the credits as "Driver." When he meets Carey Mulligan's character Irene, a young mother who lives next door in a seemingly low-rent apartment building in Los Angeles, and she asks him what he does, he says "I drive." I just want to be sure before I continue the review that you're clear on the complexity of the protagonist, his myriad attributes a deep treasure chest - a boon, if you will - to be discovered by the hopeful audience member and carried out after the film into the world beyond, waiting to be shared. Do you remember what it is that Gosling's character does?
Nicolas Winding Refn was brought on by Gosling as a director for hire - Gosling was a fan of Refn's previous films, Valhalla Rising and Bronson the most noted among them - and Refn makes almost as much of a mess of the script as Driver does of his situation in the last half of the film. (He spends idyllic, quiet time with Irene and her boy, the boy's father in jail until he then isn't and is home, unable to pay debts [beyond his time in prison] to violent gangsters who threaten his family, which Driver of course takes issue with, etc., etc. - nothing spoiled here that the trailer doesn't set up.)
Drive is supposed to be cool. Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman turn in great supporting performances as the seedier players in Driver's life. The script from Hossein Amini, adapted from the James Sallis book, is minimalist to be sure. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (who shot all of Bryan Singer's films) does lend a different look to Los Angeles, where more than a few movies have been shot, and there are some iconic shots of Gosling, who is always intriguing. The editing by Matthew Newman, who worked with Refn before, is assured. The film has a neat retro score by Cliff Martinez. All of the elements are there. But this is a case where it's an anti-Gestalt product: after months of hype in the festival circuit, Drive simply didn't go anywhere for me, and it wasn't a fun ride. I'm all for slow builds, character studies, and slice-of-life stories - I champion these while flashier movies get more attention. This film doesn't feel distilled, though - a genre picture cut to the bone - it just feels hollow. Here, long takes don't build character or tone or anticipation, they just feel long. I'm curious if part of the acclaim for the film - though now that the film is in wide release, there are detractors among critics - is because when the "build" finally turns, the outcome is gruesome. In this the film owes another debt to Taxi Driver, which does the slow build and character study so much better. It would be a disservice to a potential filmgoer to not call attention to the excessive graphic violence in Drive - this moves beyond shoot-em'-up flicks, even some horror movies, and these scenes are only barely telegraphed. Seriously, it's gross.
I've made note in previous reviews that film is subjective. You may love this film, and that's good. Many other critics and audience members do. I'm rarely a contrarian when it comes to critically-acclaimed films. To me, though, this feels like everyone complimenting the emperor's new clothes (Gosling does have a snazzy jacket with a scorpion emblem which is of course put to use in a painful metaphor later), when there's nothing to see.
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