Review: Drive

Saw Drive on Tuesday night. What a mistake that was.

I ended up writing a rather long discussion of it, but if you're short on time or patience, the above paragraph pretty much sums up my review.

(Spoilers abound in the following.)

Part of the problem was my expectations. The trailer allowed me to make various assumptions about it fitting with a familiar genre. I figured it was going to be a fairly standard heist movie, with a heavy emphasis on fancy driving.

Also, Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 93% rating, which raised my expectations from “mindless fun” to “potentially actually good.”

I should have read the R.T. reviews in detail. Although several of them do use phrasing that suggests high-octane fast-paced action, most of them accurately describe the movie as slow-paced and gory. But the reviewers saw those attributes as good things; they described it (I'm heavily paraphrasing here) as being more an art film than an action flick.

And I suppose it is an art film, or at least artsy. And I suppose if I'd gone into it with the right expectations, I might have liked it a bit more—but on the other hand, if I'd had the right expectations, I wouldn't have watched it.

The first problem I had with it was that the protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling and known only as Driver, has no affect. During the first third or so of the movie, I think he smiles, slightly, once. Other than that, he's dead-faced, and he almost never talks, not even in response to direct questions; he just stares. But not in an interesting or compelling kind of way; to me, his look says more “I'm not sure what I should be doing, and I've forgotten how to act” than “I'm being a strong silent mysterious hero guy.” I think he's meant to be, among other things, a laconic homage to Eastwood's Man With No Name character, but Eastwood's rugged face conveyed that there was a lot going on underneath the silence; whereas Gosling's approach conveys, to me anyway, that there's nothing at all going on under the emotionless mask.

In an interview somewhere, Gosling quoted the director as having said that “it’s a movie about a guy who drives around listening to pop music because it’s the only way he can feel.” That may be what the director intended; but what I got from those scenes was that the zombie protagonist drives around blankly through the blurry blank anonymous strip-mall streets of Southern California, thinking and feeling nothing. Which I guess just means that the pop music had no effect on me.

Anyway, so Driver meets this very young-looking neighbor woman (a white woman who's married to a Latino guy who's in prison), and instantly falls in love with her (which I knew only because of movie genre conventions and because he stares at her a lot), and she pretty quickly falls in love with him (also by staring a lot, but at least her face is more expressive than his). And I found their interest in each other almost entirely unbelievable.

So the movie already wasn't really working for me (and not only because of expectation mismatch) by the time we got to the hyperviolent parts.

And this movie is violent. Also gory. (By my standards, that is; note that I don't watch horror movies, by which standards this is probably fairly tame.) There were three scenes where I actually looked away from the screen (which I almost never do) because of the up-close-and-personal blood splattering everywhere as heads were destroyed. The violence comes in short bursts, at intervals, but it feels like there's a lot of it.

Which I suppose is another art-film thing. I'm sure it has all sorts of interesting artistic intentions about portrayals of violence. But that part of the movie didn't work for me at all.

Speaking of artsy: It's the kind of movie in which there's lots of explicit gore and no explicit sex—but there is one semi-violent scene that's set, for no reason I could figure out, in the dressing room of a strip club, with at least half a dozen naked women sitting around watching blankly as Driver beats up their boss. A couple of them are a little surprised/shocked/scared at first, but for most of the scene, they all just sit there like furniture with boobs.

(Surprisingly, the movie comes close to passing the Bechdel/Wallace test. There are two prominent female characters, and there's a scene in which a minor female character talks with one of them—but she's asking about the major character's husband, so it fails point three of the test. Which is nonetheless further than a lot of movies get.)

I might have been willing to forgive most of the above if the movie had followed through on its title and core premise and focused a little more on Driver's amazing driving ability.

But it doesn't. There's one relatively brief car-chase scene. There's one game of cat-and-mouse at mostly slow speeds with the cops, who give up remarkably easily. (And at the end of which, Driver apparently abandons his clients.) There's one scene of using a car to attack someone. There's one very brief bit showing Driver driving on a racetrack, and another very brief bit showing Driver doing a stunt-driving scene. And there are two or three scenes in which Driver drives slowly down darkened blurry streets of LA from one place to another, just like in any other movie. (Apparently those were the scenes in which he was listening to pop music and feeling, but I missed that.) And I think that's it.

The whole premise of the movie is supposed to be that this guy is an astonishingly good driver. But we only see his astonishingly good driving in that one car chase scene, in which the other driver (who we never see and who seems to exist only for that one scene) seems to be nearly as good as he is.

Relatedly: Driver's day job is as a stunt-car driver, but that never has a payoff in the plot. At one point, he even goes and takes a disguise from the movie set and wears it for the next couple of scenes, for no apparent reason (and it's not much of a disguise, given that he continues to wear his very recognizable and very blood-spattered jacket throughout).

Relatedly: his night job is as an extremely good getaway driver, which he's apparently been doing for years, but there's never any mention at all of the payment he presumably gets for that, and in contexts where money is needed, he never indicates having much.

Oh, and although he makes a point at one point of saying that he doesn't carry a weapon, he spends a surprising amount of time in successful hand-to-hand combat with professional bad guys.

So here we have a movie that's advertised as if it were a slick high-speed car-chase action movie, but that's actually primarily an artsy alternation between long silent staring matches and gory scenes showing an affectless protagonist beating professional killers to death with his bare hands (and shod feet). Oh, and a hammer.

Regarding the title, Associated Press reporter Christy Lemire provided a useful comment:

Thinking back, there isn't really all that much driving in Drive—a couple of chase scenes here and there, staged efficiently, thrillingly. It's more about the questionable choices that drive people—and, ultimately, the ones that drive them away.

Okay, so I'm willing to agree that the title is intended as a pun, that it's not primarily meant to be about driving a car. But even given that, I don't think it's a very good title for this movie. I'll go along with it being partly about bad choices (though mostly the characters do what they feel they have to), but it seems to me a stretch to say that it's about drive per se, or even about being driven. (Though Driven would've been a somewhat better title for this movie.)

On that topic, it's perhaps telling that (according to IMDB) “Refn does not have any interest in cars. He doesn't hold a driving license and has failed his driving test 8 times.”

Two other things that bugged me, while I'm here: the music (which kept being ominous, even in scenes that don't turn out to be ominous), and the occasional weird upward camera angles, looking at people from too low.

But I suppose it would be easier, or at least briefer, to make a list of the things I liked about the movie than the things I didn't like.

So, things I liked:

  1. Oscar Isaac as Standard Gabriel, the neighbor woman's husband. The actor worked with the director to make the character less stereotypical, and that work really paid off.
  2. The mildly catchy theme song.

. . . Yep, that's about it.

Yes, I'm being unfair; I should have done more research before watching. For example, if I had looked up the director, Nicolas Winding Refn, before the movie, then I might have had a better idea what to expect.

And Refn doesn't seem to agree with me about what kind of movie it was. He considers Driver to be a hero, for example—even (in one of the goriest moments) a superhero—and he referred to the romance aspect as “more of a Romeo & Juliet kind of love story.” (Huh?)

And he said this:

[. . . in a fairy tale,] there’s a prince or a knight, an innocent woman who’s extremely beautiful and pure and needs protection, an evil king or a witch. And that is essentially the DNA of the structure of “Drive.” It’s a fairy tale that takes Los Angeles as the background. The hero, Driver, is very easy in a sense: by day he’s a real human being, by night he’s a real hero.

Whereas even when I try to take the movie on its own terms, I can't see Driver as a real human being or a real hero. (Those phrases are also in the theme song.)

So . . . If you're in sync with what Refn's trying to do, as apparently most critics are, then apparently this is a really good modern neo-noir fairy tale, about a Man With No Name who's driven, by the desire to protect his love interest, into a situation in which he has to engage in brutal violence to survive.

But boy am I not in sync with what Refn's trying to do.

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