Monday, March 12, 2012

Movie Monday: Drive

This week's movie is the 2011 action/thriller Drive!

I really wanted to see Drive when it came out last year, partly because I had read it was a really solid, no-frills genre film, something many filmmakers attempt but can't quite pull off (see: Planet Terror, Hobo with A Shotgun), and partly because it featured one of my all-time favorites, Albert Brooks, in a very atypical role. I was sold.

But I didn't get around to Drive at the time, so as soon as it hit video I corrected that mistake:
Drive opens with a nearly-wordless, bravura pre-credits sequence of "Driver" (Ryan Gosling) talking to a potential client, and dictating the terms of his employ: for five minutes, he will do everything he can to get his client out of trouble. Anything before or after that five minutes it not his concern.

Then we see Driver do just that, helping two masked gunmen escape the police via a combo of near-genius driving skills and steely nerves. After safely delivering his clients, Driver dons a ball cap, leaves his car, and disappears into the crowd, walking right by the very police looking for him.

Back at home, he runs into his neighbor, a single mother named Irene (Carey Mulligan). It doesn't take too long to see Irene is none too steady, and that Driver likes her and her son. He runs into her again at a convenience store and he helps her bring her groceries home:
Driver's day job is as a stunt driver for Hollywood, and his mentor is some sort of auto mechanical wizard named Shannon (Bryan Cranston). After we watch Driver at work, Shannon introduces him to a friend, an imposing figure named Bernie...improbably played by Albert Brooks:
Bernie wants to hire Driver to to run an auto race, but that's just the beginning of their involvement. At this point I will say no more about the plot, and just give you a general impression of the film as a whole.

I liked Driver. A lot. With its quasi-80s fashions and theme music, the film is consciously replicating the gritty urban thrillers of the 80s, like Thief and To Live and Die in L.A. (not to mention 1978's The Driver, which also features a nameless lead character). Yet it veers into territory those films did not: it has some downright "arty" sequences, as if someone made a drive-in art house film. Also, the violence at times is extreme in its in-your-face goriness: at one point Driver attacks someone and, after clearly knocking them out, continues to kick their head into literally a bloody pulp.

Going into this movie, I was unconvinced that the baby-faced Gosling could really pull off a role this bad-ass. And while he does look too small and boyish to be such a shark, there are moments where I thought Gosling made that work for him--like Driver is only pretending to be this hardcore, and uses extreme violence to cover it up. There's a touch of that in a scene set in the backroom of a strip club, where Driver threatens to hammer a nail into the head of low level mob guy, much to the indifference of the surrounding strippers:
Mad Men's Christina Hendricks shows up, briefly, looking less glammed up but still stunningly beautiful; someone needs to get her into another crime thriller stat; she looks like the classic Movie Gun Moll. Hellboy's Ron Perlman also appears, and Albert Brooks--still recognizably the mordant, whip-smart funny guy--completely pulls off his role as a mid-tier mob guy; there's a scene where he commits an act of violence so grisly I genuinely gasped when it happened. How can this be the same nebbish from Modern Problems and Lost in America?

The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, has claimed Halloween as an inspiration for this film. For most of the movie, it's hard to see how, until Driver nicks a high-end movie prop mask and stalks one of his enemies, looking genuinely creepy, aka Michael Myers:
Driver has a final confrontation, and in the process makes a selfless bargain to save the life of someone else. It ends on a bit of a down note, but I don't think there was really any other way to end it.

As I said above, I enjoyed Drive quite a bit: it's a terse, grisly, moody thriller. Sometimes its a bit too artsy for it's own good, and I can see why the film didn't succeed at the box office, since it was marketed as your typical car chase-and-shoot-'em-up brainless action movie. The performances are universally solid, with Albert Brooks showing a side I never would have thought he had. I can see why people thought he should be nominated for an Oscar, but also understand why he wasn't: his character is so unpleasant and such a change in his persona that I bet it put a lot of older Academy voters off.

Drive is definitely in the tradition of those short, sharp gritty urban noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the aforementioned modern takes that came out in the 70s and 80s. If I had one major criticism, I'd say that Drive doesn't really advance the genre past where directors like Michael Mann and William Friedkin left it during the 1980s; sure, characters have cell phones and satellite radio, but there's no sense of how these people on the fringes of society are like now, no great insight into what, if any, living in the 21st Century might be like to someone like Driver.

But maybe the filmmakers weren't trying to do that, so it's best to judge Drive on what it is: an involving, well-acted, well-directed, at-times-grueling story of ugly, violent people, and one of those people's attempt to do something good.


Craig Michael Patrick said...

Great movie - a jaunt through existentialism in American cinema. I particularly liked the scene when Driver stomped someone to death in the elevator. Utterly gruesome, completely unheroic.

No heroes here, only man.

studio gulag -- said...

Finally saw it myself-- A nice fusion of the old Noir tropes of the late 40's with the 'Neon Coke Noir' of the 80's. Makes a nice triptych with Walter Hill's The Driver (1978) and Michael Mann's Thief (1981). Even though Brooks got more media attention (and deservedly so-- he's great) I thought Bryan Cranston stole the movie. My only complaint is I would have changed a bunch of cue in the soundtrack.

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