TIFF 2011: Refn and Gosling’s ‘Drive’ a little too cool for its own good

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Written by Hossein Amini, from a novel by James Sallis

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

USA, 2011

In one of Albert Brooks’s first scenes in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive as b-movie-producer-turned-mobster Bernie, Brooks dismisses his former occupation’s body of work. “One critic said they were ‘European.’ I thought they were shit.” Bernie likely wouldn’t have much time for Drive, either, a sometimes-engaging, sometimes-frustrating movie that prides its sense of cool above all else – occasionally at its own expense.

Strangely, for a would-be white-knuckle thriller, Drive‘s virtually violence-free first act is also its most effective. Ryan Gosling toplines as a figure known only as the Driver, a young man with an unknown past and a gift for precision driving. By day, he works as a stunt driver on Hollywood films, but by night, he works as a getaway driver, promising the perps only an five-minute window and a clean exit. His kindly-but-wily mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston) hooks him up with gigs in both realms, but has bigger dreams for him – racing. For the capital needed to buy the Driver’s new racing wheels, he turns to Brooks’s aforementioned hood. Things are looking up until our esteemed hero gets mixed up with a demure neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and winds up trying to help out her ex-con husband, only to wind up in Bernie’s crosshairs when the job goes very wrong.

No one will ever accuse Drive of lacking for style. The soundtrack is replete with appropriately backwards-looking synth-pop (College, Chromatics), often accompanying Gosling’s lonely visage as he cuts handsomely through LA nightscapes, with or without criminal intent. Dreamy editing, particularly the use of superimposed images, reinforces the agreeably dreamy feel.

It’s when the violence starts to erupt that Drive reveals itself to be something less than the sum of its well-oiled parts. The gore comes surprisingly thick and fast, which may not come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen Refn’s Bronson or Valhalla Rising, but it’s especially jarring in this context. What’s more, the film’s sequences of ultraviolence can’t approach his previous work for visceral impact, nor are the stagings particularly interesting. (One shot may cause Irreversible flashbacks, but even that moment is mostly notable for the over-the-top sound design.) And if you were expecting a movie called Drive to contain a single show-stopping vehicle chase, you’re out of luck; the opening driving sequence is slickly edited and gorgeously dark, but hardly memorable. The key to making great revisionist entertainment lies in creating iconic moments (just ask Tarantino); Drive contains none.

There exists an obvious contradiction within the figure of the Driver – he appears placid and even pleasant, and is willing to help others, but contains a shocking capacity for violence – but Gosling underplays so strongly that the discrepancy never feels like a mystery worth uncovering. In fact, both Cranston’s loveable weasel and especially Brooks’s malevolent ex-producer feel like richer characters despite their comparatively diminished screentime. But what rankles more than the forgettable thriller elements is the sense that Refn feels like he’s above the material; his treatment is unduly fussy. A perfect example is a late-film confrontation between Brooks and Gosling, in which acts of violence are crosscut with a conversation that took place moments earlier; it’s a needless stylistic indulgence that adds nothing to the scene, actually serving to dissipate the tension and make sure the movie limps to its end.

Refn’s proven he has more than enough technical chops to make an effective, impactful genre movie; but where the black-metal atmospherics and stylized violence of Valhalla Rising propped each other up, Drive feels constantly at odds with itself, not content to be mere entertainment, but not functioning as an artistic statement, either. Where Steven Soderbergh was able to imbue his revenge thriller with his own aesthetic sensibilities and non-linear editing style without losing its emotional core (The Limey) and Werner Herzog successfully wallpapered over a paper-thin crime story with his own gonzo vision (Bad Lieutenant), Refn can’t make the balance between form and content work totally in the movie’s favor. Beyond the sly bit of meta-commentary implicit in having a hero and villain who both have ties to the movie industry, Refn’s film doesn’t feel like it has much to contribute in comparison. As a result, Drive is, hip, stylish, entertaining, and distinctive – what it isn’t is a great movie.

Simon Howell

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to the 18th. Tickets, schedules, and other information can be found on the festival’s website.

  1. tmack says

    As a P.S. I just want to say that Ricky is wrong–you’re a good reviewer and you make excellent points about Drive’s flaws — the story is skimpy, character actions often challenge believeablity, the score is a bit bold. But on the whole, Refn’s stylistic choices were spot on, and they rescued this movie from what could have been a more Salt-like journeyman delivery. Substance-wise, it’s not as fulfilling as Michael Mann’s Collateral or Heat, but it will rank.

    You are right about that confusing cut at the end with Bernie & the driver–I’m sure Refn regrets that edit and should consider deleting it in a director’s cut. I was also underwhelmed with Mulligan’s character who largely gazes her way through the film.

  2. tmack says

    After reading a few glowing reviews, a friend and I decided to give Drive a chance. Simon, not only do I have to disagree with you, but I also have to disagree with my earlier comments as well. I thought Drive was a hell of a film and I was shocked at how superior it was to the early draft I read (and which really wasn’t changed all that much). Refn gave Drive a style and presentation that was not on the page, believe me.

    An iconic moment? How about that elevator scene? All sweetness and horror. (Yes, it did bring back Irreversible–I averted my eyes.) The tense action of the story breaks fast at the pawn shop and never lets up as the Driver must figure out how to outwit the mob using the same skills he applies to outwitting the police.

    The opening sequence is very much like like The Driver–a getaway in which Ryan O’Neal uses technique and speed to outwit the police. Like Gosling’s character, he is a man of few words and fewer facial expressions. Do us a favor and comment on The Driver after you see it.

    1. Simon Howell says

      Ha, there goes my only ally! Amusingly, one of the only people whose views more or less align with my own on Drive is Glenn Kenny – whose take on Bellflower I found infuriating.

      To Rick – I have no issue with Valhalla Rising and I’ve not seen the Pusher films. Moreover, I don’t actually dislike any of Refn’s movies so far! I just don’t think he’s the second coming or anything.

  3. Ricky says

    Simon you have problems with every film from this director and YOU ARE ALWAYS SO WRONG … I mean you are always wrong but never more so than when reviewing Renf’s films…

  4. Great film says

    I guess they let anyone be a critic these days…

    The movie was awesome. I saw it last night and I’m recommending it to all my friends.

    Don’t listen to this guy.

  5. tmack says

    I recall reading an early version of this script. When I first got into it, I thought it was a redo of the Walter Hill classic with Ryan O’Neal–Drive–in which O’Neal plays a nonverbal, ultra composed professional driver who does getaway jobs for criminals. While Hill’s film may have inspired this writer, it ultimately bears little resemblance to it…unfortunately.

    I thought the early draft didn’t work, mainly because I found the main character uninteresting. I also guffawed at some of the plot twists. Drive will likely find an audience with high school and college kids; I’ll wait for the dvd.

    1. Simon Howell says

      Yeah I’ve heard the “The Driver” comparison in a few places; unfortunately I’ve not had the chance to see it. I’ll have to rectify that.

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