Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive is one of those buzzy movies with wildly mixed reviews. The enamored toss around favorable comparisons to Pulp Fiction and Taxi Driver while others use words like ‘laughable’ and ‘over-the-top.’ Movies like that are at least interesting to see, and Drive is no exception. I found myself agreeing with both the fans and the haters.
The film starts out promising: An intense Ryan Gosling is the nameless Driver, scoping a treacherous post-heist landscape with his steely-vulnerable eyes. He pulls some serious drive-fu ala Jason Statham in The Transporter and we’re all set–whatever else happens, Driver is going to be the coolest guy in the room.
And don’t let the propulsive soundtrack and MTV-cut pacing fool you. The director also indulges in some luscious, slow-burn moments of stillness, confidently letting the atmosphere carry the story for awhile. Add in a dewy-eyed damsel-who-doesn’t-know-she’s-in-distress (a luminous Carey Mulligan) and what could go wrong with this movie?
Turns out, a few things. The build-up leads to some violent pay-offs and suddenly the director loses all control and sense of proportion. The pulpy, noisy, hepped-up violence is so overwrought that it’s laughable; some of the audience lolled at the scenes.
Don’t get me wrong. Graphic violence is a staple of noirish thrillers and, used right, can add a heightened sense of emotional complexity to a film. (See One False Move, The Grifters, LA Confidential.) Here, the almost-cartoonish violence pulled me out of the story and broke the fictive spell. It’s crucial when going for the comic kill that the director maintain control of the kind of movie he’s making. At least two sensibilities war for control of Drive. Evocative arthouse noir or blood-soaked graphic novel with overtones of pulpy melodrama?
Refn fails to pull off the brilliant tonal mixing of say Pulp Fiction, where Tarantino gleefully blended genres, tones and viewpoints to create an exhilirating update of the conventional crime drama. Refn’s film feels more like a confused smorgasboard–don’t like the serious, grittily romantic story? Hang on, it’ll turn into Sin City in a minute.
What saves the movie is Ryan Gosling, who has that rare combination of movie-star good looks and blistering talent that made it impossible to look away from James Dean or Marlon Brando. Gosling is so committed and focused of an actor that any time he was onscreen, I completely believed the movie, whatever wild direction it went. The rest of the cast is equally blameless. Albert Brooks plays against type as the kind of shady/respectable underworld type written about in the true crime book Tough Jews. And Christina Hendricks stows the va-va-voom of her Mad Men character Joan to embody a trashy, shifty accomplice.
It’s too bad Refn didn’t stick with just one vision. Drive might have been as brilliant as the overheated fanboys say it is. See it, but don’t expect to be elevated or exhilirated, just entertained.
3 out of 5 stars.
Next up on Devlin’s blog: My RX for a bloated novel.