Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Film Review: Drive (2011)

It looks good, it sounds good, and if it came in Smell-O-Rama it would be musky yet pleasant, but like so many of the Detroit products its lead character drives, Drive has problems under the hood.

First the good. The director, Nicholas Winding Refn, has an eye for color and composition that makes most of his L.A locations come alive. He even manages to make a drive along one of  L.A.'s over-photographed drainage canals seem original. The score is another plus. Refn avoids obvious musical themes and cues and goes for bombastically romantic pop songs that are a nice counterpoint to the violence and the very subdued  romance between the male and female leads, played by Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan.

The acting is very good. Gosling can't have more than three pages of dialogue in the whole film, but he manages to speak volumes with his eyes; he even manages to put meaning into the angle of the toothpick his character (known only as the Driver) always has in the corner of his mouth. Carey Mulligan, as Irene, is good, but the script doesn't ask her to do much more than produce winsome smiles. It's Albert Brooks' performance that really holds this film together. As a deceptively ordinary-looking middle-aged mobster he's scary, amusing, and very believable. He also gets all the best lines.

Where this film has problems is in the mechanics of the plot. The story is pretty basic film noir: a problematic romance becomes entangled with a criminal enterprise and nobody goes home happy. The romance portion of the plot just didn't work for me. The main problem is that the Driver almost never opens his mouth around Irene and yet she falls for him. Yes, the Driver is nice to her son, but that's one of the oldest romantic cliches in the book; almost as old as the romantic montage sequence that ends with the Driver, Irene and her son skipping stones in a creek. Skipping stones! Even Nicholas Sparks would laugh at that. And doesn't it bother Irene that the Driver is only a few syllables away from being a mute?

The final act of the film falls apart at the seams. Up until then the Driver's been acting with ruthless logic, but then his common sense seems to go out the window; he dons a needless disguise before offing one opponent, and yet continues to wear a highly individual white silk jacket that's covered in blood. He even walks into a crowded restaurant wearing the jacket and no one seems to notice it. And in a final meeting with the Albert Brooks character the Driver takes no precautions whatsoever and disaster ensues.

At times you get the feeling that Refn is presenting the Driver as more of a guardian/avenging angel than an actual person, similar to Clint Eastwood's character in Sergio Leone's films. This is an OK concept, but then The Man With No Name never attempted a romantic relationship. That kind of thing doesn't work with symbolic characters. In the end, the plot problems turn Drive into nothing more than an exercise in style. All-style films are fine with me, but just don't annoy me with a shambolic and distracting plot.

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