Friday, January 23, 2015


The astonishment and disappointment must have been thick in theaters during 2011's DRIVE, a movie that appears to be another moronic contemporary action film with CGI car wrecks ala THE FAST AND FURIOUS and tired one liners that pass for real dialogue. I'm happy to report that instead DRIVE is a thoughtful, near existential exercise in style and sparseness in equal measure. Somewhat of a throwback to the era when the main actor said very little and showed even less emotion while taking care of business, which proved often dirty and unpleasant. Movies with Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen.

The unnamed lead character played by Ryan Gosling even at times resembles McQueen, especially in a few profile shots. His face rarely reveals anything. Steely cool. He works as a mechanic and Hollywood stunt driver during the day and pilots getaways cars for assorted criminals in the evenings. Managing all of his gigs is Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a hard but good natured guy who very unwisely takes advantage of his Mob connections. His employee is precise, leaving nothing to chance but ready for anything. Each getaway job has but one condition: the client must complete the job and get back to the car in no more than five minutes.

Shannon persuades mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) to buy a stock car for his employee to race. Meanwhile, the driver meets his new next door neighbors: a young mother named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and son Benicio (Kaden Leos) with whom he becomes close. The driver begins to show a softer side, a heart. But then Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, coincidentally owing a debt to another gangster who we'll learn has ties to Nino, a real hothead (with an overheated performance to match by Perlman).

Alternatively, Brooks has one of his best roles as a Jewish mobster who is quicker with his brain than brawn. Almost Zen-like, remaining calm even as he slashes a victim to death, quietly uttering "there's no pain. It's all over."  Icy menace, with none of the usual neuroticism we've seen in his other roles.

Despite an abundance of plotting, DRIVE is more interested in the shadows in which the characters dance. The wellspring of enigma within each of those characters. Dutch Director Nicolas Winding Refn is going for the feel of French existentialism, not BAD BOYS 2. His mise-en-scene works each element to that end, to allow viewers to drink in the dread of each location. Not only dark warehouses, but also the harsh L.A. sunlight upon parking lots and the sickly glow of elevators. Los Angeles as a character.  Every shot is rich with Meaning, or maybe Refn is just in love with his images. Either way, it works.

My one criticism of DRIVE is the baffling use of extremely graphic violence. I realize this is yet another element for Refn's palatte but for me it was a distraction, an unwelcome destruction of the unique mood created.  The squibs are quick, though, and should not deter the thoughtful from seeing this most unusual movie.

In the end, if you find yourself criticizing DRIVE because, for example, a briefcase of money is purposely left in a parking lot, you may want to seek other fare.

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