Friday, September 16, 2011

Out of Gas: Drive

Until Drive, his latest film, actor Ryan Gosling could always be counted on to deliver consistently good performances; often he was the best thing about a bad movie. He shone in The Believer (2001), as a Jewish-born neo-Nazi, and in Half Nelson (2006) as a drug addicted junior high school teacher. Even though the films were otherwise mediocre, those parts were juicy. Gosling was also the sole bright spot in this summer’s dismal, overrated romantic comedy/drama Crazy, Stupid, Love. – his first foray into comedy. Playing a Lothario who took on a hapless shlub (Steve Carrell), who has just been dumped by his wife, in a successful bid to turn him into a winner with the ladies, allowed Gosling to lighten up for a change and just have fun with his part. (The film’s second half flattened his role when his character was tamed by falling in love with a young woman.) And sometimes his fine acting matched the quality of the movie itself, such as in Lars and the Real Girl (2007), where he was utterly convincing as a man in love with a sex doll, and in this year’s Blue Valentine, where he registered strongly as a desperate man trying to deal with the painful reality of his busted marriage. So, with such good judgement in parts, if not in films, what is Gosling doing in an idiotic, empty-headed movie such as Drive? This one doesn’t offer him anything of value at all.

It’s a sign of his increasing clout in Hollywood that Gosling was allowed to choose a director for the movie when he signed on to the project – the first I’ve heard of this, though stars, of course, have often managed to get directors they don’t like fired from the picture – and chose Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish director best known for the Pusher Trilogy, a gritty examination of Copenhagen’s criminal underworld. I haven’t seen the trilogy, but have only heard good things about it and apparently that’s why Gosling picked him, too. However, on the basis of Drive, I can’t see the appeal of Refn’s direction, which is as impersonal and unimaginative as any Hollywood committee-directed movie.

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan
The story, too, written by Hossein Amini (Jude, The Wings of the Dove), from James Sallis’ novel Drive, lacks heft and thoughtfulness. In fact, it can be boiled down pretty simply: Gosling’s Driver (his real name is never given in the movie) is a Los Angeles stunt car diver who moonlights as an occasional getaway wheelman during robberies. He makes the acquaintance of a new neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a woman with a young son who is awaiting her husband’s release from prison. When her husband gets out, he becomes embroiled in a dangerous situation related to his incarceration. To help the woman and her son, who he’s bonded with, the Driver steps in to help. All sorts of chaos then ensues. That’s about it, with Gosling reduced to playing an iconic Shane-like figure, albeit with Charles Bronson’s penchant for dishing it out. He also rarely speaks – taciturn doesn’t begin to describe him –  while Mulligan offers up yet another one of her dull reactive/passive roles. (She’s a talented actress, but this part, and those in An Education and Never Let Me Go, while well acted, don’t allow her to stretch much.) Other performers, such as Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks and Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, are wasted too. Oh there’s also a (un)healthy dollop of extreme, graphic violence that’s as gratuitous as it ever gets.

Albert Brooks
Refn doesn’t actually understand the rhythms of America – Gosling is Canadian but lives there and should – so the film doesn’t really feel genuine. For one, the late night streets seem deserted, and though I’ve never been to L.A. I don’t buy it. And the small details in the movie don’t add up either. We never see anyone else in the apartment complex where The Driver and Irene live, and while that might seem a minor criticism, it’s indicative of the movie’s thinness and paucity of atmosphere despite its numerous shots of The Driver cruising the city's streets. (Small details are important as they enable you to buy into what’s being proffered on screen.) The film's biggest deficit is the film's insertion of one dimensional archetypes in place of flesh and blood creations, which is off putting, to say the least. Drive never pushes the conceit as far as Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver did, where not only was there a character also named The Driver, played by Ryan O’Neal, but other ones labelled The Detective, The  Player, The Connection etc. but this movie is just about as memorable as Hill's movie which means not very. Only Albert Brooks (Broadcast News, Defending Your Life) makes any impression in Drive. His ex-film producer turned vicious mobster is chilling, an interesting and adept departure from his usual comedic roles, particularly when stacked up against Ron Perlman’s scenery chewing as his partner. It’s not a great role, it’s not substantial enough, but at least it’s something different. The film's dialogue, sparse as it is, however, is nothing new. It's often laconic to a fault and towards the end even risible. But why that should this be surprising? If the characters don't come across as real, why would you expect their words to be plausible?

I’m not actually sure what demographic Drive is supposed to appeal to since it’s not thrilling enough for the action fans and too violent, I suspect, for anyone else. The critics however have fallen for this one, maybe the same way they did for the fictional films Brooks' hoodlum used to make. Those movies, he informs The Driver, were action movies, filled with “sexy stuff,” films that one critic lableled "European", a euphemism for  “arty.” It won’t be the first time reviewers, European or otherwise, have fallen for movies that don’t reflect America so much as their blinkered, prejudicial, or merely myopic views of the place. Oh well, perhaps. like Gosling, they were seduced by Refn’s pedigree and thus can’t admit how quickly this film runs out of gas. As misnomers go, Drive takes the cake.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute, and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.

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