Sunday, September 25, 2011


Spoiler alert-o-meter: Some thematic spoilers, but the trailer probably gives more away.

The first ten minutes of Drive are mesmerizing. In them we follow Driver, a stunt driver and mechanic by day, while he goes about his moonlighting job: driver for heists. He picks up the shady characters doing the job, drops them off at their location, waits at the wheel while watching his watch and listening to the Lakers game and the police scanner both. After his clients get back in the car he drives them away through the Los Angeles streets.

He follows the speed limit and stops at red lights. At one point he’s made but he out maneuvers the police copter. He’s still listening to the game, and makes it over to Inglewood as the game lets out. He parks in the underground lot just as thousands of fans leak out of the stadium. He walks away, wearing a Lakers cap, his clients free to mingle into the crowd. 

It’s a bravura sequence, a daring move after another long summer of digitized aliens, wizards, and robots. What fourteen-year-old boy would sit still for this? Well, this fourteen-year-old boy-in-his-heart for one, who remembers the movies of Michael Mann from the eighties and nineties. Thief springs to mind, or Heat, as Driver explains to his prospective clients that he will give them a five minute window in which he is unconditionally theirs. But they are on their own in the minutes leading up to and following those five. This guy is good. This guy knows when to walk away, like any good Mann character. Like Frank, the James Caan character in Thief. Like Neil McCauley, the Robert DeNiro character in Heat

If the thematic and stylistic elements of Drive’s opening scenes aren’t enough to persuade you that we’re watching a movie from another era, a time where the anti-hero had a code, then just wait for the titles and music. The typeface is hot pink and cursive in a way that recall many eighties movies. And the soundtrack. Contemporary pop songs that sound like refabrications of any number of pop songs that trailed through the Top Guns and Flashdances.

And that’s not all. Michael Mann, for those who might have forgotten, invented the musical montage for Miami Vice, where Crocket and/or Tubbs would cruise Miami looking fashionable and moody. Well, director Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, Bronson) working from a novel by James Sallis, pulls out the stops of his Mann fetish here. There are beautiful shots of the Los Angeles skyline, understated wide-frame compositions that understand aspect ratio, and character placement that all but mimic some of Mann’s framing.

Driver meets his neighbor, Irene (the eternally sixteen-looking Carey Mulligan), and her little boy, Benecio (a natural Kaden Leos). The boy is brown, the girl is white. The husband is in prison. Irene brings her car to the car repair place where Driver works. The owner, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), Driver’s boss and partner in the rest of his driving work, sees their potential and sends Driver to take the lady and her kid home. A gentle, chaste relationship develops, and Benecio falls for Driver as a surrogate dad.

Meanwhile, Shannon goes into business with two aging gangsters, Bernie Rose and Nino, played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman respectively, both having a damn good time playing bad. Bernie fronts money to Shannon for a car that Driver will drive on the stock car circuit.

Irene’s husband, Standard (ha), is released from prison. Standard is weary of his wife befriending the beau hunk from next door while he was incarcerated, but soon Driver is caught up helping him pull off a pawn shop heist to pay off an old debt.

The movie is, in its way, quiet up until the moment the husband walks out of the pawn shop, heading toward Driver’s getaway car. The gunfire that erupts in this scene is shocking. Not visually necessarily, but as a new loud effect on the soundtrack. From here the movie shifts from a purely Michael Mann fantasy, into a more 1990s violent revenge drama. There’s still some of that Mann brute nihilism, but the violence onscreen makes your average Mann production seem like a Disney movie.

At moments it seems Tarantino-derivative, except Drive is devoid of humor. I hate characters in movies like this that don’t carry or use a gun for ethical reasons. Here Driver refuses to use a gun. Which means what? Which means he’ll use a knife or anything else he gets his hands on. That seems to go for the aging gangsters as well. I hate knives, but here much of the violence comes at the hands of knives, boots, straight razors, hammers, and a fork. Ouch, that smarts.

The blood starts flowing moments after Driver escapes the botched heist and holes up in a motel room. Two thugs with shotguns ambush the room, and the shots ring out with a thunderous clarity. Again, shocking. And now the visuals catch up to the soundtrack. The bad guys do not make it out alive. Thankfully their deaths come hot and fast, in hairy sticky glee, via angles showing carnage from above and through doorways. I didn’t understand its purpose. Maybe to bring home to Driver just the kind of stuff he has been perpetuating but always somehow avoiding.

There’s no dwelling on the blood in Drive. But there’s plenty of it to look at, so by the time I was registering, say an impaling on the left somebody would get shot on the right. It’s a trick of seeing a movie projected on a screen; your eyes have to search out the action. Different from watching TV where you’re looking straight ahead and everything scopes out within a radius that your eyes don’t need to adjust to.

Driver has a code, and while all breaks up around him, he sticks to it. So do the aging gangsters, who are weaved into the plot in a surprising way (don’t stop to consider these plot points because they easily can become plot holes). The ending is ambiguous, and brings us back around to a Michael Mann ending. It’s on par more with Thief than Heat or Manhunter.

Ryan Gosling’s lunkhead accent, Yonkers by way of Palookaville has served him well in recent movies like Crazy, Stupid, Love and Blue Valentine, fits in well with Drive’s quiet, blue collar loner. This may be the first time Gosling’s taken a role that adds action to the mix, and he handles it well, hinting that with every move Driver makes there’s a rationale behind it. Carey Mulligan plays it quiet as well, as a woman who cannot act on her feelings, caged as she is by a situation beyond her control. She still looks about sixteen, but here it doesn’t take away from story.

Driver is a well-made and enjoyable action flick, if you don’t mind a bit of the old ultra violence.

Red band trailer:


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, September 18th, 11:50 am. Viewed with Amanda. Snack: Half a peanut butter Builder's Bar - the half that didn't FALL ON THE FLOOR!

Coming Attractions:

50/50. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has cancer. His buddy Seth Rogen is there to support him, and try to get him laid. Hilarity ensues. It looks funny, and heartfelt. Based on the true-life story of the movie's writer, Will Reiser, and his real-life buddy, Seth Rogen.

Abduction. Out this weekend. The actor from Twilight finds his face on a milk carton (bummer) and goes on an action packed trip to figure out who he really is. John Singleton directs this dazzling actioner.

Dream House. Freaky story of a family that moves into a new house. Soon they discover the family that lived there before was murdered. Soon Danial Craig as the father and husband starts to have visions suggesting he is the murderer and his family is actually the originally murdered family. Damn! This is full of atmosphere and dread and could either be laughable or shocking. Co-starring Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts.

Killer Elite. Also out this weekend. Lame Jason Statham actioner co-starring Robert DeNiro and Clive Owen (how far the mighty have fallen). Not a remake of the Sam Peckinpah 70s flick.

Like Crazy. College-aged love affair between an American and a Brit. Starring Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, and Jennifer Lawrence.

Rum Diary. Ah, this is a movie I can get behind. Johnny Depp stars in the adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's first novel. It has a playful vibe, a beautiful look, Johnny looks swell, and so do the ladies. Something to do with a journalist covering a story on a Caribbean island. Although that plot seems secondary to the drinking and various other Hunteresque shenanigans. Luckily it does not offer the same vibe as Gilliam's misfire Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.


Robin said...

Hi Dell -- I would like to see this film but I can't tolerate a lot of violence. What's a film viewer to do? Anyway, sorry to hear you lost 1/2 of your candy bar!

Dell Smith said...

Maybe they'll make a tv version of it. But then, that would be just as violent I guess. I'm not sure the violence was justified, at least not the very brutality of it. But the filmmaker was not out to make a PG-13 version of this story I guess.