ETRANGE 2011: DRIVE review

Drive is a confusing film: bear with me on this. The story's easy enough to follow - the taciturn anti-hero Driver (Ryan Gosling) breaks his vow of laissez-faire to help the mother and child who happen to be the first people in a while who've cracked the armour around his psyche. Ordinarily he doesn't let anyone in; he works as a mechanic or stuntman by day, and a getaway driver by night, shunning all emotional connection with the job. He doesn't concern himself with what criminal activities his clients are up to, won't carry a gun, refuses to get involved. For five minutes he guarantees he can get them clear of any pursuit - yet after that five minutes he simply walks away. On some level, the hapless schemes of his boss at the garage (Bryan Cranston, best known for AMC's series Breaking Bad) are similarly background noise. Driver just wants to drive.

Then completely by chance he lends a helping hand to Irene (Carey Mulligan), the young mother in the flat next door. The two hit it off, and the seed of a relationship forms between them, but it's not to last; Irene's already married. Her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is about to get out of prison, and though he's making all the right noises about going straight there are some old acquaintances determined he won't get the chance. When they threaten to punish Irene and her son for the debts Standard ran up inside and left unpaid, Driver decides to help the man make good, but their choice of one last heist turns out to be significantly more complicated than it initially appeared. On paper, at least, it's a typical enough pulpy yarn born of tearing through Donald Westlake's back catalogue at a rate of knots.

There's much to like about Drive; Gosling and Mulligan are terrific, managing a sweet, gentle and utterly believable chemistry that lends much of the film an unexpected poignancy. The action on the road is a thing of cold, slick beauty (though you don't get much, which is a significant problem by itself). The portrayal of Los Angeles as a writhing snakepit is predictable enough but there's a weary sense of ennui to it that proves oddly atmospheric - Driver's seen it all before, and just wants to get back to his beloved cars. When it clicks, Drive is extraordinary - the long stretch from where Driver and Irene meet, to a little while after the moment his efforts to help Standard go horribly wrong is thirty minutes or so that easily ranks alongside the best film-making from any director this year. Refn describes the film as being about having fun, and while he keeps that in mind Drive is sharp, committed and riveting stuff.

But Refn seems to have something of a fluid idea of what fun ought to mean. What starts as if it's pursuing the kind of steely resolve Brian Helgeland might have come up with gets rather too absorbed in the over-the-top, caricatured indulgences of James Sallis' original novel. By the end of the film too much of Drive feels as if it's drifting into self-parody; the first death is genuinely shocking, but the violence turns into the kind of ludicrously dumb operatic gore that feels more like a spoof of Martin Scorcese (come on, someone defend the elevator scene, I dare you). The eighties sheen to the production no longer comes across as a stylistic choice, more a tiresome affectation, with constant glittering cityscapes that don't serve any purpose and repeated musical themes that seem to be laughing at the plot. The twists seem less like labyrinthine intrigues and more trying to cover up the fact the story's really not that complicated.

Again, Gosling and Mulligan are both excellent, and not merely as a couple - Gosling takes a little time to convey the idea he can be menacing, but once the story's properly kicked into gear there are times he's chillingly convincing. Oscar Isaac also makes a fair impression; he plays Standard as a blowhard with good intentions well enough, but the scenes where the three of them interact are the most memorable, an awkward love triangle of sorts that's genuinely touching. A shame, then, that Albert Brooks as the villain of the piece is awful, the kind of transparent cipher who grates horribly every second he's on screen. To be fair, it's more the part at fault than the actor, as with most of the supporting cast; Cranston tries his best, but his part's utterly superfluous, and seeing Ron Perlman's mob boss chew through the line 'That is one fine-ass pussymobile, motherfucker' is good for a laugh, but there's virtually nothing else to his role.

There are still moments to enjoy once Drive turns into a cartoon, and the sleazy ambience has a weird kind of charm, but it simply feels like a different film by the final act, as if Refn couldn't keep a straight face all the way through. Obviously he can do serious; Valhalla Rising was far too po-faced, if anything, without a moment of light relief. But there's nothing in Drive to suggest he really understands how to maintain the right tone for this kind of thing, to give the impression of treating everything as serious business and a joke at the same time. Helgeland's Payback was justifiably criticised for Hollywood suits having forcibly removed the original ending, but it's a far more coherent, accomplished guilty pleasure than this. Kim Jee-Woon's A Bittersweet Life plays a similar idea straight, and manages to be far more affecting, with depth and feeling all Gosling and Mulligan's efforts can't begin to make up for.

Refn seems confused whether having fun means treating the material with reverence or the heavy-handed, slightly patronising reserve of a grown-up helping children put on a school play. ('And then there can be a scene where he corners the guy in a strip club and beats him with a hammer! Won't that be fun?') Either way could have worked - if he'd shot the whole thing as a kind of DePalma-esque video nasty it might have been excellent - but the indecision means Drive never really gels. The idea this got hailed as a world-beater is frankly mystifying; Refn is unquestionably talented, but he does nothing here to take advantage of two excellent performances, turn a few retro touches into a convincing aesthetic or lend a simple story any real nuance. Drive is good for a evening in with some friends when you're not really paying much attention to what's going on, but little else, and rates a grudging recommendation at the most.

(Drive was screened as part of the 17th L'Etrange Film Festival at the Forum des Images in Paris, run from 2nd-11th September 2011.)
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