Stuck in Neutral

Ryan Gosling is L.A.'s finest driver in Winding Refn's "Drive"

Drive, Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn’s first American movie (starting today at the Bow Tie Cinemas), opens with one of the most assured sequences I’ve seen in movies in a long, long time. Ryan Gosling plays the Driver (a nod perhaps to Two-Lane Blacktop’s unnamed heroes), a man in total control of his world. He’s a driver–on the racetrack and in the getaway. He has communicated his terms to a gang of robbers via the telephone: they get him for five minutes, he wants to know nothing about the job save for where he’s to pick up the thieves, and in that five minutes he will drive them to safety. Nothing more, nothing less.

With similar assurance, Winding Refn films this breathtaking opening with steely panache–there’s no music, very little action, and even the driving seems realistic, none of the Bullitt-style screeching of tires or tricky camera work (though I love that chase and that movie.) The Driver listens to a basketball game as he goes and checks the watch he’s affixed to the steering wheel. The men in back roll and shift with every passing turn. They stop. They start. They drive fast and elude police when that moment comes. And finally, in the darkness of an overpass, they’re free.

The drive is over. The job is done. The Driver walks away.

Would that the rest of Drive have that same confidence, same tension, same originality. For Drive is a study in cool, a movie that’s all mood and style that strangely creates interesting characters on one hand, and dull as hell caricatures on another. And even the Driver is not immune from the vicissitudes of the screenwriting.

The story, such as it is, could be brilliant: The Driver works at an auto body shop with his pal Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a grizzled old guy always looking for ways to make a buck, and actually be somebody important. Shannon walks with a limp and you can tell right away he’s prone to poor decisions–he talks too much, and that limp raises your eyebrows.

Shannon wants to race automobiles, and needs money. He turns to small-time gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) for the cash. Rose balks at first, especially since his douchebag partner Nino (Ron Perlman) doesn’t seem interested, and there’s bad blood between said partner and Shannon.

But Shannon’s got a wild card: The Driver. That’s the difference. Rose meets the Driver, is impressed, loans him the money.

OK, there’s that. The plot you’d think would drive this movie is now set aside as we see the Driver woo Irene (Carey Mulligan.) Irene lives next door to the Driver, with her child Benicio (Kaden Leos). Unfortunately, she is also married to Standard (Oscar Isaac), who is in prison but will be out soon, you know, like in a week.

Unfortunately, too, there is nothing to know about Irene, because her character is nothing more than a woman for whom the Driver can be chivalrous. She does virtually nothing in this film.

The Driver’s initial scenes with Irene and Benicio are so damnably cliched you almost wonder if Winding Refn’s deliberately trying to tweak the genre, like David Lynch did in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. I don’t think so, though. I don’t know if he thinks it’s original to have the Driver take them on a stroll across the L.A. river bed, or to throw rocks into a stream while sappy music plays, but it’s cheesy, and grinds this movie to a halt.

Standard comes home, and lo and behold, thugs want him to rob a pawn shop to pay them back for prison “protection”. If he doesn’t agree, they’ll hurt Benicio and Irene. What else is the Driver to do but help out?

That’s the plot in a nutshell. Of course, the robbery goes horribly awry. Of course, a ridiculous coincidence links the robbery to Rose and Nino. The violence escalates, and here is where Winding Refn loses control of his movie.

For starters, let’s talk about the obvious: there’s nowhere near enough driving in Drive. The opening scene reflects the brilliance of this character behind the wheel, a man who understands that driving is not just speed, but evasion, stopping, starting, accelerating, turning that wheel and grinding those gears, everything.

Never again do we see him work a car in such an impressive fashion. Granted, there’s another car chase, a thoroughly conventional drive and pass situation on a California highway. But it doesn’t matter, apparently, because the Driver is no longer a driver–by the middle of this confused movie he’s a killing machine, able to exterminate even professional killers.

Drive has some great performances–Ryan Gosling is steely, solemn, and damn near awesome, as is his grizzled partner Shannon, played by Cranston with necessary comic relief.

But what are we to make of Carey Mulligan’s Irene? Who is this woman? No one, in fact–she’s just there to be mother and lover. Same thing, too, for Blanche, played by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who does nothing but carry a bag of money, wiggle her ass, get beaten and finally blown away. The same can be said for Oscar Isaac’s Standard, a weak fellow who clearly is there just to get killed.

And much will be made of Albert Brooks’ performance as the gangster, though I don’t know why. Nowadays, everyone from Tom Hanks to Denzel Washington to Brooks are “playing against type” by being a vicious criminal, hit man, or rogue cop, and you know what? I think it’s lazy Oscar pandering, as they bring so very little complexity to these roles, outside of squinting and killing people while mumbling half-baked witticisms. Brooks sneers and stabs people to death, which is only shocking because Brooks is usually a grade-A, Woody Allen-style schmuck.

I think what’s so troubling about Drive is its sheer predictability. When we first see the thugs beating up Standard, and him reluctantly telling the Driver his woes, I swear to God I could have left the theater and told you pretty much where the movie was going–the Driver would survive and have to kill off everyone involved out of a sense of honor to Irene, who wouldn’t return his love in the end. And so, indeed, it went.

But the plot is clearly not important to Winding Refn or anyone else. What’s important is that you sit and stare, enraptured by the unfolding cool playing before you on the silver screen. Drive is cool as the other side of the pillow–cool fight scenes (that make no sense), cool satin jacket smeared with blood (I guess no one in L.A. gives a shit if a guy walks around with a jacket covered in dried blood), cool soundtrack, and even cool strippers.

But I wish it had some depth, too. Frankly, I enjoyed Drive despite its problems, but it doesn’t linger, as great or even fun movies do–I’d forgotten most of the film a half hour after I walked away. Winding Refn is a force to reckon with, so I look forward to his future movies (and if you care, check out his Bronson, which is amazing.) But Drive barely leaves the lot before it sputters and stalls.

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