Originally Reviewed – 10/11/2011
Ever walk out of a theater and say to yourself, “What the heck did I just see”? More importantly, have you ever taken note of how you said it? Said one way, it could mean disgust after witnessing a convoluted mess and said another way, the sentence could tingle with fascination. Upon leaving the screening of the latest film by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, that strange sensation crept over me coupled with some serious self doubt. Much like the townsperson who saw a naked Emperor when the rest of village agreed he was clothed, I looked around to see if anybody else had been a little duped by the rave reviews this film’s been getting. Best Director at Cannes, a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a ranking of 124 on IMDB’s Top 250, this film has been universally lauded. So why was I so bored while at the same time so dazzled? How could I be on the edge of my seat while simultaneously yawning and picking sleep crust out of my eyes? The answer is a tricky one, but in the end, Drive is a filmmaking mash-up of decades and genres that does so much right, the missteps that are made make the film that much more disappointing.
Before I even get into story, acting and the rest of it, let’s get one thing crystal clear. Ryan Gosling is the best actor currently working in Hollywood. Period. Playing a stunt driver by day, wheelman for the city’s undesirables by night, Gosling is simply mesmerizing in an undeniably difficult role. Opening with an expertly tense scene where Gosling plays a game of cops and robbers between himself, two thieves and the LAPD, the nature of the quietly intense Driver is instantly cemented. Coming off cool, calm and unflappable in the most intense pressure, Gosling’s Driver is consistently engaging and despite us not having a good reason to root for this anti-hero, we find ourselves doing so anyway. More on that later.
Unfortunately for the film, Gosling doesn’t go it alone as he starts to develop a relationship with his next door neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicia (Kaden Leos). Irene’s husband is in prison and when he’s released only to find himself dealing with old debts, Driver comes to the rescue. Add to the mix Driver’s crippled mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the mafia entwined owner (Albert Brooks) and Ron Perlman as Brook’s right hand man, Drive is populated with a strong cast. The problem here is that none of these actors have very much to do. With the exception of Gosling, the cast meanders through the movie, aimlessly going through the motions as they coast from scene to scene. Mulligan is boring, Perlman is jarringly over the top and Brooks is just there. While many people have called these characters “intriguingly ambiguous”, their underlying motivations aren’t clear and as a result, we really don’t care what happens to any of them, really bad considering much of the film is spent with these periphery people.
Which brings me to my introductory question of, “why was on the edge of my seat yet strangely bored”? To answer this, let’s play a little game I like to call the “RedLetterMedia.com Challenge”. If you’ve seen Drive, please do this game before continuing the review and feel free to use this trick anytime you’re curious as to why a movie bored you death. For the characters in Drive, do the following: Describe each character in the movie WITHOUT saying what they look like, what they did or didn’t do in the plot or what their profession or role in the movie was. Describe the character to your friends like they aint never seen Drive.
Go ahead! Once again, I’ll wait.
Give up? While you should be able to come up with something for Gosling, I guarantee you won’t be able to do this for any of the other cast members. If you did, let me know in a comment below and if I can’t pick it apart, I’ll mail you a pizza roll.
This is the main reason why Drive is such a disappointment, especially considering there was so much I loved about it. As with Refn’s previous work in Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Driver is visually stunning. From the patient camerawork to the nerve tingling score to the interesting choices made in both setting and scenery, Refn is quickly becoming a master of filmmaking techniques. A wild mash-up of 80’s excess and 70’s grit, the film borrows the best of each decade, creating moments that are nail bitingly tense and amazing to look at. As an addition to the “art house” action genre, a style that was pioneered by the likes of Tarantino and DePalma, Refn succeeds in both pacing and tone. The difference between Refn and those other directors, however, is that Refn hasn’t matured as an artist yet. Just like when I saw his first film, Bronson, and had a very similar reaction, there is a brilliant filmmaker being born here. For me, Refn needs to have the courage to inject his characters with real life, real complexity and once he does that, he’ll be on the level of the great ones. Without that, his films will remain interesting proofs of concept, but nothing more.
A film buff’s action film or a blockbuster junkie’s indie, Drive ends up a disappointment despite doing almost everything right in the technical aspects of creating a stylish action/drama. Beautifully paced and carefully shot, the film falls apart every time one character is forced to interact with another. Without Gosling’s courageous performance, this movie would have been a disaster. With it, you get just enough to stick it out to the end, even if you find yourself inexplicably bored through much of the feature. Filled with romance that’s emotionally unexplained, bit performances that are shockingly over the top and characters that only serve as set pieces for the gorgeous cinematography, Drive is an empty shell of a movie. A beautiful, gripping and at times exciting shell, but a shell all the same.
Score – 60%