I can understand why people want to like director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, and it’s all explained in the opening scenes. We meet the Driver, played by Ryan Gosling, a silent professional. No matter what your crime of choice, he’ll give you a five-minute window to get the job done and then get you out of there. But unlike many other action movies, what follows is not the fast-paced, guns-blazing, cars-flipping, explosions-blossoming action sequence that we’ve all come to expect. Instead, the chase is much more measured. The streetlamps light up his face as he meets the speed limit, no sound except the talk radio dimly playing on the car’s stereo. When the police do take note of his presence, a chase does ensue but it’s methodical – smoothly zipping between lanes and through dense traffic. A major portion of the chase involves the Driver and his employers parked in shadows, waiting for the heat to die down. This is not what we’ve been led to expect, and it’s kind of fantastic.
Once this prologue is over, however, things grow increasingly tiresome. We’re expected to accept the Driver (he’s given no other name) has a life beyond his trade, complete with a father-son type relationship with a local mechanic and a crush on his next-door neighbor. Unfortunately, Ryan Gosling has been cast as the lead. While he’s able to adequately portray a mute thug in the opening scenes, his natural aversion to acting makes these more down-to-earth moments play out in an awkward, ungainly fashion. The slow relationship he builds with the girl next door (Carey Mulligan) is done primarily through an uncomfortable lack of chemistry. He forces a smile, at times, but otherwise the actor is as unable as ever to carry a film. Many note his pointed lack of emotion – even in emotionally charged scenes – as a sign that the film intends to deliver the goods primarily in style, echoing morally ambiguous heroes in the “man of few words” vein from cinema’s past as deliberate homage.
Perhaps that is intentional, to some degree, but when you then include a scene that has the male and female lead giggle over the fact that the man’s car does not currently have wheels on it, that tends to undercut the glowering tough guy image you’ve been seeking to cultivate. Add to this an over-arching plot which fails to conjure any excitement or thrills, and the final product feels like a wet noodle.
The Driver gets caught up in a robbery gone wrong, the end result being that he and everyone he knows are in the path of a group of baddies looking to take him down. Though there are a few, brief images of extreme violence which drive the danger of the situation home, too much of the action from this point is strangely uncompelling. The girl, Irene, is a major player because of her clear attraction to the Driver, yet she never appears to be in any real danger. You might expect a cold, determined march to the crime boss on the part of our hero, wasting henchmen along the way. Instead everything comes together far too quickly and cleanly. Albert Brooks has been widely lauded for playing against type as a shrewd businessman who prefers not to deal in the dirty work of mob enforcement but must as a matter or pride, yet there is little to love even in this performance. At one point, he slays an underling in front of his business partner and yells, “Now you can clean up my mess!” I’m uncertain how it’s meant to be read; neither comical nor threatening, the moment is empty despite the post-production blood spray.
This is where the largest problem with Drive lies. It pits its hero against its de facto villain, but the good guy isn’t especially virtuous – or rather, is not especially interesting (but man, they really try to wring as much pathos out of that scorpion jacket as they can) – and the villain is not particularly treacherous. While I applaud Refn’s decision to keep the action restrained, limiting the violence to a handful of sharp outbursts, it’s in service of a weakly ramshackle story that lacks utterly a central motivation to keep the viewer engaged. The Driver’s bond with his boss at the mechanic’s shop is so rote and under-developed it’s almost difficult to believe that our hero actually has any compassion for the older man. When Irene’s husband is released from prison, whatever sense of tension there is between the two men in her life is provided entirely by the newly introduced actor, Oscar Isaacs. Gosling is content to keep looking bad-ass while offering little comparatively.
He embodies the aesthetic of the film, in that way. The movie takes place largely at night, under the shifting streetlight, reflections of the lead in mirrors and windows. The character shifts gears fluidly when he’s racing along the highway and he grips a hammer with an intense gleam in his eye. But when it’s time to get down to business, he hesitates. The movie throws out cheap metaphors like “my hands are dirty”, but then refuses to take them anywhere. The final moments of the film are almost laughable in the complete lack of catharsis that they bring. But Drive is not interested in humanizing its characters or providing depth enough that their actions feel in the slightest bit weighty. Its biggest accomplishment is in its stylized font. It’s a movie more interested in looking cool than in being cool.
Congrats to Refn, his movie has the look that he’s going for and uses ironic ’80s synthesizer-driven cuts on the soundtrack to further give the film the right feel. But there’s magic only in those cool, masterful opening images – in that short amount of space where style really was all that was needed to sell everything: the characters, the events unfolding, the setting, the mood. The movie is charming as it’s revving is engine, but when Drive tries to hit the gas is when it shudders and dies.