Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: Drive

Drive is a film that doesn't take enough advantage of what the economic story and subtlety of dialogue allows it.  In fact, it regularly abuses it - behaving like the worst kind of throwback to '80s crime noir (are we already getting that reminiscent?).  It's a Michael Mann film from a foreigner's perspective.  It wants to recall the great To Live and Die In L.A. and Heat, but instead reminds you of Miami Vice.  What should be dream-like and hypnotizing, such as constant shots overhead the Los Angeles skyline, come off without even the glory of being pastiche.

But it's not all bad.  Ryan Gosling stars as the titular unnamed Driver, who works part-time as a stunt-driver for films and nightshades as an escape driver for various heists.  He drives with as much precision as he speaks - both like a man with autism.

After getting involved with a woman next door to his apartment (Carey Mulligan) while at the same time being drawn into a deal with a mob boss and his partner (Ron Pearlman and, in an inspired casting decision, Albert Brooks), both situations cross paths in the messy, noir-ish ways you'd expect.

Brooks is especially fun.  Hearing that familiar groaning voice of a stand-up turn sinister is chilling.  He plays a mob heavy as though I'd never seen one played before; as someone who actually feels bad about doing bad things.  When killing a man he likes, he assures him there'll be no pain.  There's nothing glamorous about what he does, and he knows it.  It's a very impressive display.  Pearlman,  while entertaining, is in all out gangster-mode.  He's a resentful schmuck who'll stop at nothing for his place in his world.

Drive is unbearably tense in its slow-burn early scenes - with Gosling and Mulligan taking deep, long pauses between conversations as the camera just lingers.  There are shots clearly inspired by Taxi Driver, such as the well-known shot of De Niro on the phone in which the camera passes by him as though uninterested.  Here, that shot means something else;  it becomes the character that lacks interest.

Unfortunately, Drive doesn't change that kind of momentum in any way.  Even when the film lingers on long pauses of glorified (often unnecessarily) gruesome violence, there are still shockingly long pauses.  If anything, the shots should have suddenly been shorter, the action more heightened rather than left dull and gruesome.  It was as though a European filmmaker took hold of Dirty Harry halfway through production, and didn't fully understand it.  The audience wouldn't have been able to decipher such a film either.  The aesthetics are there, and some of them are quite good, but in the end it's just a brutal mess.

There are things to marvel at in Drive, though nothing to gawk at but the gruesome last third.  It's almost comically violent in a film that doesn't seem to have a sense of humour - one thing most neo-noirs get to enjoy.

It's masterfully shot, with a thrilling opening scene.  It's certainly not all style, no substance, but it definitely makes you wonder just how much substance is entirely borrowed and how much is earned.

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