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Review: Drive

After having it recommended to me no less than half-a-dozen times by various people, I finally saw Drive this past Friday with a few friends.  My instant reaction, both during viewing and immediately after, was that this movie was “cool.”  This is a word that you’ll likely hear critics or your friends use when discussing the movie and it’s accurate: the photography is cool, the action scenes are cool, the music is (very) cool, if a little incongruent…but is the movie any good?  And, moreover, did I like it?  The more I think about these questions, the harder I find it is to answer those questions affirmatively.  Plot summary, analysis and spoilers after the jump.

Plot Summary:

By way of general plot, things in Drive are pretty straightforward: Ryan Gosling plays a loner (we never get his name, because names are bad for mystery, so I’ll just refer to him as Gosling) in Los Angeles who works as a part-time mechanic, part-time stuntman and part-time getaway driver.  He lives simply in a sparsely decorated Echo Park, Los Angeles apartment.  He doesn’t talk much.  He may or may not have a history of violence.  He may or may not be a high-functioning autistic.

It’s unclear why this happens, but eventually he falls in love (maybe?) with Irene (Carey Mulligan), who lives down the hall from Gosling with her son, Benicio, with whom Gosling also apparently falls in love.  Benicio’s father and Irene’s significant other, Standard (that’s a name?), is in prison for a crime that’s never fully explained (glaring lack of detail and background is pretty much its own character in Drive) and the empty nest he creates may partially explain why Irene is (maybe?) attracted to the taciturn, flat Gosling.  At least I think she’s attracted to him: she holds his hand in the car this one time, which seems like an I-have-a-crush-on-you-even-though-I’m-married kind of thing to do.

Standard gets out of prison and after initially seeming like he might be hostile to Gosling, sensing that something may have occurred between Gosling and Irene while he was away, he eventually (and by “eventually” I mean “within 5 minutes of screen time and without any real confrontation other than some hallway awkwardness”) comes to consider Gosling a friend.  He also enlists Gosling’s help for One Last Job, wherein Gosling would drive Standard and a bizarrely-cast Christina Hendricks to a pawn shop which some mid-level goon has instructed them to knock off.  But, wouldn’t you know it, things don’t go according to plan!  Standard gets shot (repeatedly, in the back) by the shopkeeper after leaving the store.  Another car, which pulled up to the pawnshop mid-heist, attempts to run them off the road and steal the pawn shop haul.  Christina Hendricks gets a head full of buckshot in a seedy motel bathroom.  A seedy motel bathroom gets a wall full of Christina Hendricks’ brains.  And so on.

Turns out that the pawn shop haul was a lot bigger than advertised and Gosling now finds himself the reluctant owner of $1 million.  He does some detective work and after a strip club dressing room scene that was equal parts cool and strange finds the guy who ordered the second car to rip Gosling off: Nino (Ron Perlman), whom we met earlier in the movie in a scene with Gosling’s boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) and Shannon’s friend Bernie (Albert Brooks).  Gosling tells Nino that he wants to give up the money, no strings attached.  Nino questions this.  So did I.  Nino also tells Bernie that Gosling and Shannon need to die, because they could blow up his spot with the “East Coast families” who are the rightful owners of that million dollars (and who, apparently, use Los Angeles pawn shops as vaults).  Bernie seems somewhat upset that his friend needs to die, so he murders Nino’s lackey out of frustration, because that’s how guys like Bernie vent.

Nino sends a goon after Gosling, who identifies a threat when he sees that the goon is packing heat.  This is where the movie descends into ultra violence.  There’s a scene in an elevator that’s almost too ridiculous to describe (Gosling beats the goon up and then crushes his head underfoot, as Carey Mulligan watches in shock) and a scene in the garage that’s still uncomfortable to think about (Bernie demonstrates appropriate wrist-slashing technique on his friend Shannon).  Gosling drowns Nino in the Pacific Ocean.  Gosling and Bernie stab each other in a Chinese restaurant parking lot in broad daylight.  And so on.

Then Gosling drives away.  Without the money.  Or the girl.  Who may or may not have been the whole reason he got into this mess in the first place.  Fin.

Analysis:

Before I discuss what I didn’t like, I need to give Drive its props where they’re due: the movie is beautifully shot.  The colors are excellent, the shot composition is excellent, the lighting is excellent, etc.  The two action driving scenes (a getaway that serves as the opening scene, the chase after the pawn shop) are exciting.  Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman are great.  I think Carey Mulligan is cute in a way that makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable because she looks fifteen.  The scorpion jacket was sweet.  Everything else was problematic.

The biggest issue I had with the movie was the ostensible relationship (or whatever) between Gosling and Irene/Mulligan.  They don’t really have a courtship, per se, and they exchange maybe twenty words in the entire movie, but I’m assuming that the looks they give each other, the prolonged silences, and the making-out-in-an-elevator-before-Gosling-goes-all-American-History-X-on-a-guy’s-head are coded signs for “attraction.”

The prolonged silences between Gosling and Mulligan were especially painful.  They seemed to serve no purpose except to reinforce how unlikely their friendship/romance was.  Moreover, they felt so forced and contrived that I found it difficult to forget that I was watching actors on a set.  I could literally picture a director’s assistant standing off camera, counting off seconds before signaling that it was time for the next bit of dialogue.  I wonder if Gosling or Mulligan asked Refn what the point was.

As for characterization, we’re given the impression that Gosling takes his role as a driver seriously: he has very specific rules for how he handles a job, giving clients a five-minute window where he’s “theirs,” but should they show up a minute after that five minutes, he’s gone.  He won’t enter the scene of the robbery.  He won’t handle a gun.  He drives.

(That’s 50% of the exposition we get in the entire film.  The other 50% involves Bryan Cranston telling Mulligan about how Gosling came to work at his garage: he asked for a job, demonstrated great automotive acumen and then, according to Cranston, agreed to work for half the amount of money one would normally make.  I suppose that we can add financial ignorance to the list of idiosyncrasies that define Gosling’s character.)

Something that bothered me while watching is why Gosling didn’t want the $1 million that Standard stole from the pawn shop.  I suppose it’s obvious enough: he’s defined himself as the driver and if he should take the money, then he’ll have broken or at least challenged that definition.  But so what?  Again, we’re not given any insight into why this would be important to him.

The film was adapted from a James Sallis novel of the same name.  I’m going to download it to my Kindle and try to burn through it ASAP.  Hopefully the original material will shed some light on a lot of the issues that I have.

2/4 Stars

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Monsieur Bobo › Drive vs. Drive on Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 3:58 am

    [...] here for my review of Drive, the [...]

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