Sep 17, 2011
I don't know whether this noirish car chase movie should be taken seriously. There's much in it that has got to be tongue in cheek, although it's hard to tell whether director Nicolas Winding Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini are dead serious or joking. Either way, if we can't be sure, something's not working. A.O. Scott, in his review, called it "conventional and timid". I would say that it is artificial and antiseptic, despite its ridiculously cartoonish bloodbaths. It feels like a extended music video, polished to within an inch of its life, full of scenes in slow motion with a bubbly 80's soundtrack.
Drive is the story of Driver, (Ryan Gosling) a man with no name, few words, and an inexhaustible reservoir of brutal anger, who does Hollywood stunts for a living and helps with the occasional heist. As much as I love Ryan Gosling, and as good as he can be, he's no Steve McQueen. He's no Clint Eastwood. He's too fresh faced and too expressive to fit the lonely, silent action hero type. At his age, guys like McQueen and Eastwood already looked like they had a lot of mileage. Gosling has good moments in this movie but he is not helped by a director who has no clue about what to do with characters and actors. I can buy the silent dangerous type who decides to redeem himself by falling in love with the single mother of a sweet kid. It's been done to death. But as played by Carey Mulligan, this woman is so beatific you almost expect her to sprout a halo. Turns out her husband (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. So Mother Theresa here seems to have a penchant for troublesome men. Problem is, there is nothing in her character that remotely indicates how or why. It would help if she wasn't this flat fantasy of female benevolence. Give her some sexy, some neurosis, some sense of fear, some danger. I find saintly mothers of cute kids as offensive a female stereotype as whores with hearts of gold, bridezillas and bitchy career women.
Gosling and Mulligan have some chemistry, but Refn deliberately misses the one moment where sparks could fly. Gosling is driving her around, and she chastely puts her hand on his. We never see their faces. There is no sex at all, except for a kiss in an elevator, which is the best scene in the movie and also the most ridiculously grotesque. These choices may be Refn's commentary about the puritanical pornography of violence in America, but this still does not help us care about the characters.
Drive looks great, sounds great and performs the requisite car chases with cool efficiency, but watching this movie feels like watching the chassis of a very shiny sports car. There is little there, and what little there is, is either too dispassionate, or very discomfiting. I was struck by the fact that if you do the math, in the social-racial arithmetic of this movie, the three "good" characters are white, (Gosling, Mulligan and Bryan Cranston as Gosling's mentor), she is married to a no good Latino, and the meanies happen to be two absolutely horrible Jews (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, both expertly chewing the scenery). Feeble lines of dialogue attempt to justify the motivations behind these two execrable people. In the case of Nino, played by Perlman with great panache, he's a wannabe Italian mafioso who bears a grudge because the guidos call him a kike; and Brooks is excellent as a businesslike crook who owns a collection of exquisite blades and knives with which he bleeds people (I assume mostly gentiles) to death. Those he likes, he bleeds more gently, and this is supposed to make him human. I was faintly reminded of medieval blood libels, but perhaps, being of the Jewish persuasion, I'm too sensitive. Still, I can't help but think how these kinds of toxic representations keep bubbling up in the collective unconscious. I'm not saying that there cannot be Jewish gangsters or evil characters in movies, as there are in life, but in a movie with only six characters, two awful Jews is a bit dispiriting, to say the least.
There is a difference between nihilism and empty cool. This movie looks like it wants to be some sort of an existential meditation on the vicious corruption of money, but it is too stylish, too controlled and too basic to really dig for the dirt. The violence is so over the top as to be risible. The characters don't have credible lives. Even if steeped in all the conventions of the genre, which can be quite fun, Drive is pretty lifeless.