2011, Nicolas Winding Refn
With near universal praise from the critics comes the obvious backlash from plebeian filmgoers. You know the type. The kind of film goer who basically watches anything with a big celebrity in it (because if it has Robert De Niro or Jennifer Aniston in it, it must be good) but will also see many of the Oscar nominated films because they want to appear "film literate", intelligent, and not left out of the conversation. Drive is currently scoring 93% on Rotten Tomates which means it's getting largely favorable reviews from critics, and while it's not always the case, such resounding praise has (no pun intended) driven "those people" to the theatres, left them scratching their head and, in one case, filing a lawsuit over their disappointment. Let's get this straight, Drive is not a crossover hit. Drive is a film made by a Danish filmmaker (read: European) for the avid film goers (a small point posited as an in-joke by one of the characters). It's a film that speaks the language of "movie", utilizing every aspect from actors, to lighting, to soundtrack to create cinema in the artiest-fartiest sense of the word.
The disappointing thing is, despite all the resounding positivity, and despite the attention-getting backlash against it, Drive is merely a good movie, and not so much a great one. It should be the great films that inspire such a backlash against them and such a groundswell of praise behind them, not something that's basically an homage to Michael Mann's Thief, itself another good-but-not-great film.*
Drive is a methodical movie, it takes its time, it lingers. In juxtaposition to its title and its lead character's, erm, hobby, it's not in any hurry to get anywhere. It's a character study of Ryan Gosling's "Driver", a man of few words who works at a body shop, moonlights as a stunt-car driver, and takes getaway car driving jobs on the side. For the latter, he has a strict set of rules, which is a weird "honor among thieves" kind of thing, since he seems to think that if bad guys don't follow his rules then he's clear of any repercussions. It seems to be the way he lives in general, thinking he's free of repercussions and that thieves still have honor.
Bryan Cranston plays Shannon, Gosling's boss at both the body shop and his show-biz handler, and has a helping hand in his underworld drivings. Shannon is pure small-time in every respect, his shop barely support itself, the show-biz thing is a bit of a wash, and he's not quite cut out for the whole criminal thing. His dream is to get Gosling into a stock car and let the kid's natural talent take them to the big time, but to get even a clunker of a racecar requires serious investment, leading him to Albert Brook's Bernie Rose who takes a chance, in spite of his partner, Nino (Ron Perlman), questioning his decision.
Gosling meets his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son Benicio. She's seemingly a single mother, but it's because her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. Gosling and Mulligan slowly form a bond, and as it appears to get real, Standard is on parole, but he's also in trouble, owing a tremendous debt which he's never likely to repay, one that's going to be taken out on his wife and kid. All these disparate elements start winding together, as Gosling agrees to help Standard out, only to have things go horribly wrong, and he's left on the hook for it.
A startlingly violent and potent game of cat and mouse unfolds, Gosling seeking to give Mulligan her liberty at his own sacrifice, perhaps realizing for the first time that his actions have consequences that will come back to haunt him.
Tasked with a largely silent role, Gosling shows his power as an actor, able to hold the screen through the nuances of his mannerisms. There's a single-focus headshot sequence where we see Gosling transform from a boiling rage, simmering down to a calm, demure even keel. What takes millions of dollars in effects money for an Incredible Hulk movie, Gosling is able to do with sheer talent.
Any success that Drive achieves is a result of a true amalgamation of directorial talent, acting ability, cinematography, editing, score, soundtrack, credits (done in a neon pink cursive, again owing to Mann and Thief) and the building blocks of film, pretty much everything but a script. As was revealed by Cranston in an interview with Marc Maron, the cast was given a large amount of control and influence over their characters and scenes. The script was the bed but the actors provided the blankets and Refn the silk duvet cover and pillow shams.
The score from Cliff Martinez features heavily a a retro synthesizer-pop aesthetic, not all that dissimilar from what accompanied Michael Mann's films in that era. It's a calculated sound, befitting a movie which seems as if it's from a different era of film making, where storytelling took an aside to the romantic sensibilities of the person behind the lens.
But in succeeding so well at recapturing an old style, it also loses out on any modern sensibility... and thus the patience of a modern audience (to that I should add if you want the Fast and the Furious, there's a new one out on DVD). While as a film fan, I was certainly impressed, it's as a modern film goer that I felt I wasn't as entertained as perhaps I should have been.
*A note I found of my reaction to Thief after a viewing about a years ago: "I like Michael Mann movies sometimes because of, and sometimes in spite
of their exceptionally deliberate pace. But Thief was at times too
deliberate, and on top of, too unflinchingly 80’s in its presentation
that I found it a chore to watch."
I'm sure that were I to watch Drive at home, instead of "trapped" in the theatre, I would have had a similiar "chore" reaction to it.