The Cannes Film Festival was as eventful as ever in 2011, bringing the debut of new films by major filmmakers like Pedro Almodóvar, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Dardenne brothers. It also brought us controversy over comments by Lars Von Trier, the debut of populist films like Midnight in Paris and The Artist, and once awards were given out we finally got to see the master filmmaker Terrence Malick win the Palme d’Or for his film The Tree of Life. Of course none of that was really a surprise; Tree of Life was always going to have passionate admirers and Lars Von Trier was always going to find a way to get into trouble. What I didn’t expect out of the festival was to see a Hollywood funded crime film with major stars and car chases emerge as a critical favorite. That is, however, exactly what happened when director Nicolas Winding Refn was given the Best Director award from the Cannes Jury for his film Drive amongst rapturous responses from critics. Four months later the film has opened on more than 2800 screens across the country to very positive reviews and will now have to fight to win over audiences the way it won over critics and the Cannes jury.
The film follows an unnamed driver (Ryan Gosling) who does Hollywood stuntwork and mechanic work while also moonlighting as a getaway driver for various thugs trying to pull off heists. He conducts these getaways with the utmost meticulousness, promising his “customers” exactly five minutes to get away from any pursuers, a feat he accomplishes though extremely precise control of his vehicle and elaborate escape routes. This solitary life of crime seems to work well for him until his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) gets him mixed up with a couple of gangsters named Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) who will fund the acquisition of a stock car for the driver to gain a legitimate fortune from. Meanwhile, the driver has been forming a friendship with a neighbor named Irene (Carey Mulligan) whose husband/baby-daddy Standard (Oscar Isaac) will soon be released from jail only to find himself in debt to the people who protected him behind bars. The driver decides to help Standard but will soon find this plotline colliding with his own gangland dealings in a dangerous way that will potentially ruin the world he’s built for himself.
Drive has often been described as an action movie, but it’s really more of a crime thriller with noir-ish undercurrents. The film’s story is pretty typical of the genre; we’ve all seen these movies where the meticulous criminal meets his downfall after he starts to care about a femme not-so-fatale (usually a mother) for whom he steps out of his comfort zone as a last grasp at redemption. We’ve seen this arc in countless crime films like Léon, Heat, The Killer, and the granddaddy of the trope, Shane. And no, I don’t think there’s really any kind of subversion or unique subtext at play here, it just kind of feels like a boiler-plate crime movie at least as far as its story is concerned. On top of that I also found the character of “the driver” to be a rather impenetrable and ultimately uninteresting blank slate. I think that Winding Refn was trying to model the character after the similarly meticulous criminal played by Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film Le Samouraï, but rather than coming off world-weary and complex, Ryan this character just sort of comes off blank to me. This might possibly be because Ryan Gostling (an actor I normally like) may have been a little miscast; he simply doesn’t have the aura of toughness that’s needed to really pull off being a strong silent type.
The rest of the cast does fare a little better and I particularly liked Albert Brooks as the gangster and de facto villain Bernie Rose. Brooks’ character is a psychotic criminal but Brooks doesn’t play him as the kind of cold villain that you hate and want to see die. Instead he seems like a generally pleasant middle aged man who only engages in acts of violence reluctantly. Ron Perlman’s character is a bit closer to a conventional villain, but he has a sympathetic side as well that Pearlman helps bring out even though he does need to deal with some slightly hokey dialogue. There’s also a good part here for Bryan Cranston, an actor who seems more capable than most T.V. actors of casting aside the image he cultivates after playing characters week in and week out. Carey Mulligan on the other hand seems to have been sort of wasted on a rather undeveloped role. Her character is not very well developed and doesn’t really do much throughout the film except look beautiful and act as someone for the driver to idealize and try to protect.
So what sets the film apart if it’s so similar to the many other crime films with similar plots? Probably Nicolas Winding Refn’s aggressive yet patient style. Action hungry audiences who go to this film expecting it to be like The Transporter will probably be baffled by the film’s slow pace and minimalistic dialogue. This is a film that is completely unafraid of allowing the camera to linger on details within the scene and actor’s faces; it shows things that most films would edit around. It’s also a film that is completely unafraid of silence, with scenes playing out with very minimal amounts of dialogue, in fact there’s a span early in the film where the driver seems to go something like fifteen minutes hardly saying a word. The cinematography is very slick and clear, certainly up to Hollywood standards of production, and the framing is certainly meticulous. However I was a little bit weirded out by Cliff Martinez’ synth-score which seemed reminiscent of 80s Tangerine Dream scores mixed with like minded obscure electronica song selections. Occasionally this combination of music and image would click and make sense but often it just seemed needlessly anachronistic and kind of cheesy.
Another thing that sets the film apart from other crime films is the attention to detail that Winding Refn has applied to the various set pieces, particularly the film’s opening action sequences which has the driver behind the wheel on a job. This is less of a car chase than it is a cat-and-mouse scene that happens to be played out in vehicles rather than on foot. This and one other more conventional but still excellent car chase mid-way through the film justify the film’s title, but those expecting this to be an all out car chase movie will be disappointed. Most of the other set pieces play out on foot, involving guns, knives, and fists. I hesitate to call these “action scenes” as they’re really more like elaborate murder scenes than the kind of kinetic experiences that bear that label. These scenes get extremely graphic and brutal and are very reminiscent of the violence seen in David Cronenberg’s recent Viggo Mortenson collaborations, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. As a hardened horror veteran I admired these sequences for their audacity and craft, but I suspect they will make many audiences rather uncomfortable.
In short, the style and craft that Nicholas Winding Refn has brought to this film is indeed impressive but it not necessarily revelatory. I appreciated that he gave enough of a damn to bring a fairly unique vision to the table, but I can’t help but wish that he had brought this to some stronger material. This story is a cliché and it also doesn’t really amount to a whole lot at the end of the day. Had there been a little more to the story I would have a much easier time recommending this without reservation, but as it is it feels like little more than a trifle to me, it’s a film that’s too slight to really work as an arty independent film and to weird to really be tremendous entertainment. Given that I’m kind of surprised that it works as well as it does, I did like the film and recommend it for some of the set pieces, but I wouldn’t say it lived up to the hype at all.
*** out of Four