Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review: Drive (2011) isn't 'cool', but rather just an art-house, navel-gazing version of any direct-to-DVD action picture.

100 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

There is an old Robert Rodriguez interview where he comments about how shocked he was by the positive reviews that greeted the release of El Mariachi.  He hinted at certain biases that critics have toward films that are supposed to automatically be 'better' than the rest.  To paraphrase, Rodriguez thought he was making an exploitation film, but because it was a foreign movie with subtitles, critics found all kinds of symbolism that wasn't really there.  Nicolas Winding Refn directs the hell out of Drive, itself based on a novel by James Sallis.  But the visual poetry is in service of a painfully contrived and hilariously generic narrative, and even said 'coolness' is so overwrought that it eventually turns into self-parody and becomes as boring as the story being told.

A token amount of plot: "Driver" (Ryan Gosling) works by day as an auto mechanic and stunt driver, while moonlighting by night as a getaway driver for thieves and the like.  His life is one of general isolation, but that changes when he takes a mutual interest in his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son.  Even when Irene's husband is released from prison, the so-far platonic affection still exists.  So when said husband (Oscar Isaac) ends up in hot water over protection money, Driver offers to help him pull of the heist to settle the debt.  The heist goes fine, no one gets hurt, and everyone lives happily-ever after.  That last sentence was a joke.

I purposely avoided any trailers and TV spots for the film, having been told that they were quite spoiler-filled.  Having seen the film, I can only wonder how this film could be spoiled, since it is so formulaic that anyone who has ever seen a crime film can accurately plot out what is going to happen and when.  Predictability is not in-itself a flaw, but Drive takes 100 minutes to tell maybe 30 minutes worth of story.  The vast majority of the running time is given to Gosling silently driving around the city and/or exchanging mostly silent glances with said damsel-in-distress.  You say these scenes are 'artistic' and filled with symbolic character moments.  I say it felt like a cheap direct-to-DVD action film filling up the running time with redundant driving scenes and scenes of two people staring at each other.  After a terrific and suspenseful opening action sequence (where stealth and silence prevail over loud vehicle crunching), the picture slows to a crawl as it introduces its primary characters (that's good) and spends oodles of screen time merely letting our two would-be lovebirds exchange 'romantic' glances (that's bad).

This is also one of those films where our two leads feel the need to barely talk about a whisper, so it's a good thing they have so little dialogue.  The rest of the cast fortunately adds a bit more life to the proceedings, as Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston helpfully talk at normal volume and actually give more than two facial expressions during the course of the picture.  But the film is very nearly a silent picture, which is mainly a problem because it is not a very engaging one, opting less for 'slow motion' than for extended scenes of 'no motion' (spoiler-free example: a major moment involves a distraction of an enemy, something that would take thirty seconds in a normal film but here drags on for two minutes).  We are supposed to believe that the relationship between 'Driver' and Irene is a potent one, that it is worth potentially sacrificing the life Driver has made for himself.  But since we get absolutely no backstory or character development for Ryan Gosling's brooding protagonist, we basically have to go on faith that this isn't just a case of two movie stars mooning over each other because the false notion that a bad or amoral man caring about a pretty girl (and/or a child) will automatically make him good.

Driver is presented as capable of savage violence when it is called for and when it is not.  During a climactic moment, he actually kills a more-or-less innocent bystander.  Yet we're supposed to somehow believe in his potential goodness or heroism, both because Ryan Gosling is handsome and brooding and because the soundtrack explicitly tells us as much.  A reoccurring song literally has the refrain: "He's a real human being, and to me a hero.", which makes me again wish that Baseketball (which hilariously spoofed on-the-nose film-song lyrics) was a bigger hit back in 1998.  Cary Mulligan has no character to speak of, other than to be pretty and give Gosling moon-eyes when its required.  We are supposed to be invested in this relationship, but it is so empty that it makes the Bella/Edward romance of the first Twilight film truly feel like a legendary love affair.  Again, we are given no background or development of any kind for any of the would-be heroes, and the film expects us to care (and approve) purely because they are played by beautiful movie stars.

Yes, the film looks relatively stylish, and yes there is a confidence and artistry to some of the compositions, but the visuals of the film serve no purpose other than itself and eventually becomes the whole reason.  Critics constantly complain when big-budget studio films are purely concerned with style over substance, yet artsy-fartsy films that commit the same sin are apparently given a pass.  Drive is in the end all about its own style, flaunting its lack of substance as some kind of extended-middle finger to those who will hail its 'coolness' and ignore the fact that there is nothing underneath the razzle-dazzle.  It is boring, uninteresting, and audience-insulting, playing as it does to the barest adolescent fantasies in a manner befitting a high school short story.  Take away the critics-choice actors and the intriguing but very Tangerine Dream-ish score by Cliff Martinez, and you have the plot, the pacing, and the character development of any given direct-to-DVD action picture.

The great irony is that I think director Nicolas Winding Refn and/or writer Hossein Amini know this.  There is a scene in the first act of the film where Albert Brooks (in the best performance of the picture) lays out some background exposition.  He states that he used to be a movie producer.  He then explains that (paraphrasing) 'I used to produce movies in the 80s. Kind of action films, sexy stuff.  Some people called them European. I thought they were shit.'  From whomever's mind that line originated from, it seems clear that the filmmakers may be laughing at the critics tripping all over themselves to praise this bargain-basement genre film due to its art-house sheen.  Drive may look 'European', but it's actually just a stripped-down, character-less variation on The Transporter.    

Grade: C-


CSL said...

I love how long the shots, mostly the reaction shots, were held. Think it's one of the strengths of the film.

corysims said...

Having really liked the film, I honestly can't say you're wrong either. It's a very simple film and yet, your points are dead on.

Maxwelll H said...

I drastically disagree, and I think this emphasizes a personal issue I have with film criticism. I do not believe narrative to be the be all and end all of what makes a film good. Like a short story, if a film chooses to emphasize mood, tone, introspection, and symbolism/metaphor, to me that is all that is necessary for it to be considered great. Assuming, of course, the film does that well. On the other hand, television is the art form that more strongly mirrors novels and in that case story is the most important element.

I found this film to be cinematic formalism at its strongest. I'm sorry you didn't like it, Scott, but I find the comment "You say these scenes are 'artistic' and filled with symbolic character moments. I say it felt like a cheap direct-to-DVD action film filling up the running time with redundant driving scenes and scenes of two people staring at each other." somewhat insulting to those individuals who did enjoy the film. It is almost as if you suggest that those opinions are wrong, and of course an opinion cannot be wrong. Nowadays people too often confuse opinion with fact.

Anyways, I'm sorry you didn't like it as I truly believe it to be a magical and special film. But here we are.

Scott Mendelson said...

I do place a stronger level of importance on narrative and/or character than others may. Mood, tone, metaphor, etc are indeed important, but they should (I would argue) supplement characters worth caring about and/or a narrative worth following. I have no problem with films that emphasize tone and the like, but I do have problems with films that have nothing but tone or mood or a visual style. Pardon the simplification, but watching a series of artfully-composed shots that serve no real purpose beyond their own artistry (which I would argue that much of Drive is) is little different than watching a screen saver. Film criticism, especially in a case where others have already formed an opinion, is often a case of saying 'these folks are right' or 'these folks are wrong'. Of course, for the purposes of MY review, it is purely my opinion supplanting 'yours'. Whether or not it is possible to strongly disagree with a given opinion without more-or-less stating 'I think you're wrong!' is a worthwhile question, but I do believe my word choice "You say... I say..." is a way of indicating that it's merely how I read the film versus how you read it.

Pat Reynolds said...

You make some valid points, the lack of character development, especially related to The Driver, was disappointing. The lack of dialogue, and the exaggerated, awkward silences, left me wanting more. And, yes the plot is fairly rudimentary, and doesn't offer enough moments of narrative interest or importance. However, this isn't a story that offers you much, it lives in the margins, so to speak. But a lot of what you've written here is extremely dismissive. Case in point. "This film looks relatively stylish." This film is gorgeous. From the lighting, shot composition, editing, he'll the opening titles, everything is visually stimulating. And unlike typical Hollywood big-budget schlock, which you could describe similarly i.e. Transformers. Refn allows us to experience, and doesn't weigh us down with expository dialogue, and I didn't feel he really ever veered into cheese. He shows us small threads that relate to characters, but you're right and I would've appreciated a tiny bit more in terms of character development. Drive has such a distinct craftsmanship to it, a cool factor, which I think you dismiss. I do appreciate your point about us forgiving Drive for style over substance. And I totally do.

The level of violence is almost to the point where it's laugh inducing. Not because it's silly, just because that's a natural reaction when you see someone get their head stomped in repeatedly. The ultra-violence on display in Drive is terrifying, but still pretty gorgeous, in terms of photography and audacity.


Quick Points:
- Where were the police in the midst of all these murders? We never see anyone disposing of bodies, and most of the violence takes place in pretty public places. This is an example of something Refn didn't how us. I mean would you really have appreciated a sub plot featuring a cop and or investigation hot on the trails of the Driver and Bernie Rose/Nino? Me thinks not. I might have appreciated one shot of the Driver attempting to clean up his mess.
-What was the point of the Driver wearing the stunt mask/mold towards the end of the film? That's a blatant example of something that just looks cool.
-Two subtle things about the Driver I found really endearing. 1. Turning Cranston's head to the horseshoe at the end. 2. In the Car, following his tussle with Rose he is having a staring contest, a nice callback I thought.
-The Driver is a psychopath.
-Pounding for being born gets a laugh every time.
-Pink cursive lettering is cool.
-White satin, scorpion print bomber jackets are going to be super in this year.
-Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston are both doing fine work here.
-Cliff Martinez has put together one hell of a soundtrack.

I appreciate Drive, and it is firmly in my Top 10 this year. So I feel the need the defend it. But it isn't nearly a perfect film, but a great exercise in style and quiet moments of atmosphere and mood. Lack of narrative depth and originality is a valid criticism of Drive, but I feel that Drive is an exception to a lot of rules.

ghettojourno said...

I think we are at a point in popular culture where the artistry is more important the story. In film, Tom Ford gets some crap thrown his way because his direction comes off a bit too "arty/precious". I haven't seen it yet, but I hear the same thing attributed Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life". In comics, a lot of the respect for Ed Brubaker's Criminal series comes from the artwork of Sean Phillips, depicting crime elements we've seen/read before and "simple" story themes in a really clever way. Darwyn Cooke's art is the narrative pull in his adaptation of Richard Stark's Parker crime novel series. In music, Kanye West is now one of the greatest MCs of all-time, not necessarily due to his rapping, but more due to his production that brings a baroque artistry that is outside of the norm for hip-hop.

Yet, however "simple" the stories being told by all of these examples, audiences and critics are connecting to them. Instances like this, where we are presented with something that a lot of other people like, but doesn't necessarily hit us personally, provide us the opprtunity to contextualize where our tastes fit into pop culture as a least, that's what I do everytime a Transformers film or a Katy Perry album comes out and hits big.

ghettojourno said...

The murders may be part of a cover-up, possibly an L.A. cop corruption thing with Nino. Like Vic Mackey and his drug dealers. It's a stretch.

The mask is probably to not be recognized in the parking lot before they get on the road, since Nino does know what the driver looks like.

Ziserwahn said...

Totally agree. This movie is being over-hyped and I went on day one, thinking I was going to see some enduring piece of cinema. Yeah it is gorgeous to look at times, but with that said you can put this thing on mute and not miss anything. No character development, no arcs, no dialogue from the main characters. Put me to sleep. Although the opening chase scene was amazing, I thought the rest of the film would be just as tense if not more so. Boy was I wrong.

Rugolin said...

I completely agree with your review as a bad action movie masquerading as a pretentious Euro-art house movie.The thing that was hard to watch was the jarring shift in gears from the moody slow pacing and then these staccatos of over the top exploitation movie violence.I thought I was watching Hobo with a Racing Car.The American with George Clooney handled this problem much better with the violence being more to a level to match the brooding style of the film.More importantly I hated the protagonist as a violent psychopath with a heart of gold.

Paul Alexander said...

I'm amazed by some of the criticisms being lobbied against this film - primarily by naive filmgoers like who insist on having a movie constantly broadcast its intent to the viewer. Criticizing a movie for something it's not ("take out x and y and you only have z")? Whining that characters didn't spend enough time talking? The most heinous critique might be your insistance that the movie takes too long to deliver its plot (if you have somewhere you need to be, maybe you shouldn't go to a movie.) What we have here is a film critic lobbying critiques against a film for its creative use of the medium - for delivering a visual narrative. It comes off sounding like a bored fourth-grader who couldn't reach for his Game Boy fast enough after the credits hit.

As for the painful comment above about the gaps in real-world logic (no cops in public places, etc.), if you weren't tipped off by the 30 second spotlighted kiss in the elevator that this movie isn't attempting to replicate reality, I have a baby Triceratops I'd like to sell you.

Rugolin said...

There is nothing original about the plot.The plot they use has been in about oh I don't know about 1000 other movies and probably the same number of radio shows pre 1950's. The characters have no depth expect for Ryan Gosling who is a silent opaque psychopathic Danica Patrick.It tries to cover all these short coming by slathering on the artistic bacon grease of Euro art house style over substance pretentiousness.It screams "I am art take me seriously" A lot of people fall for that and there is no shame in being pretentious and thinking you "get" all the other movies nobody else does.There is always that person at work who is the "Nobody get it but me" movie guy who will give some rambling convoluted rationalization that only a car salesman would love.

N. M. Reinholdt said...

I must be stupid, because I loved this film. I agree, it's very close to being trash, and there are things about it that turned me off (I don't think I've closed my eyes in a theater since I was ten, but there were several scenes I just couldn't bring myself to look at), but it has what a movie is supposed to have- magic. It's always satisfying to watch something that you know was made exactly how its creators wanted (see also: "High Plains Drifter"). Yes, the plot is totally formulaic. And all right, that song did get to me after the second or third time it was used. I much preferred the song that was used over the opening credits ("Nightcall", by Kavinsky). But it isn't about that. It's about the hypnotic fever-dream of the first third, about Bryan Cranston breaking our hearts as the grizzled, ultimately clueless father figure and Ron Perlman chewing scenery like there's no tomorrow. The interaction between Gosling and Mulligan is brilliant because in a lesser movie, they'd go home and jump into bed to the strains of The Knife's "Heartbeats" and there would be that ghastly "billowing bedsheets" effect, and there would be no reason for her husband to trust Gosling the way he does. Instead, it's the type of atmospheric, amoral morality play we haven't seen since "Se7en" (sorry, "The American" just didn't cut it for me), and I hold it up as the best film I've seen in theaters all year.

Mfbarry said...

You know, of all the condescending movie reviews I've read in my life, this one takes the cake. I mean if I see one more "Best of.." list for this year that puts Terence Malick's latest pretentious snooze fest "The Tree of Life" at the top I may just stop reading reviews all together. (The guy should just go to work for Hallmark Greeting cards and stop trying to tell stories!) But you, Mister Mendelson, referring to "Drive" as "artsy-fartsy " is just plain insulting to those of us who loved it. And I loved it.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn pulled me right in from the very beginning. The golden aura settling over the film, the funky hand-clapping soundtrack, even the shocking pink visuals all help create a "tone" to the film. When a great director makes a film he doesn't just tell the story, he creates the world that the story takes place in. He does this by establishing a tone, a look , a feel, a style by incorporating all the aspects of film making; camera, sound, pacing, narrative, color, music. He brings them all together to create the world his film takes place in. Just ask Scorsese, Burton, Nolan, Cameron, Vaughn, Fincher, hell even Kevin Smith! The ability of a director to create this world is what separates "Aliens" from "Alien Armageddon," A real direct to dvd action flick. But according to you, these two movies are basically equal. I'm sure you got quite the chuckle out of James Cameron's ARTSY-FARTSY visual flair also. As a matter of fact why don't we apply one of your criticisms to "Aliens" just to see how it holds up: "Take away the critics-choice actors and the intriguing but very Tangerine Dream-ish score by James Horner, and you have..." well, you know what you have? A bunch of empty sets. Really cool looking empty sets, but empty all the same.
I'm not going to go in depth on the other outstanding aspects of this film since most of your qualms are directed at the director actually having a vision , but the characters are all incredibly well thought out and exceptionally casted. The actors all bring they're A game.
Yes, there's a lot of style but there is plenty of substance here also. It's just a great movie. Its not an "Art film" as you sneered, though I believe it is ahead of its time. I also believe it will be around for awhile and probably develop iconic status. Much like a similar film from the 70s called "Bullit." Which I imagine you probably believe would have been a much better movie if McQueen had just "punched up the dialogue" a little. He was always a little "artsy-fartsy" that Steve McQueen.

Critical thinking at its best said...

WOW! I seriously doubt you can genuinely enjoy anything, sir. Was film school enjoyable, oops, I mean journalism school? HA-HA
I do have ONE VERY VALID question.....just how many movies have you made? Oh and I'm not talking about the ones made with your hipster cohorts, either. Critism is beautiful in that it is nothing more than critical. Maybe with your "genius" you should have gone to engineering school; that way we wouldn't have to suffer through your overly critical dissection of something that's simply meant to be enjoyed.

Tushar said...

Wow...a great analysis and review of what really is another of overrated pseudart-house cinema.

JonClouston said...

Having just seen this film for the first time months after it's realise, I would say I enjoyed this film for the long empty parts which I found relaxing and "stylish". If any of you have ever seen the film ghost in a shell I would bits of it a similar to that. A film made up of open shots and relaxing music in the background...whats not to like?

Maya said...

Scott - I think i'm in love with you. I could have written this review word for word (except I couldn't really). Spot on. I couldn't fucking believe the rave reviews on this one. Just checked out your hunger games review which was also spot on so I thought I have to see what you thought about drive. Another unpopular opinion: Ryan Gosling has been running on empty post-'The Believer'.

Robert Hawks said...

Thank you. Dull is no substitute for Interesting, no matter how Artsy you wanna pretend the finished product is, and the whole school of minimalist dialogue as a way of expressing cool is for the birds. Humphrey Bogart was cool not because he did a smoking pause better than anyone, he was cool because of what he said in between. Plus he could take a punch.

Chris said...

You are, by far, the worst movie reviewer in the world.

Catriona Lewis said...

I like this movie very much. I am big fan of ryan gosling and he is a good actor.
gosling drive jacket


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