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GREY MATTERS: Nicolas Winding Refn's interestingly terrible DRIVE is a feat of hocus-pocus

by Matthew Seitz
September 17, 2011 5:39 AM
47 Comments
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By Ian Grey
Press Play Contributor

Drive is an empty bully of a film, and its creator, Nicolas Winding Refn, is a swindler, a Generation-Whatever Malcolm McLaren whose proven high-art skills are completely absent in this U.S. directorial debut.

The film coerces audiences through an overwhelming, belligerent accruement of cultural stuff, including the bogus gravitas of sophomore semiotics, alluring but irrelevant fetish objects, and Jeopardy-level allusions to high culture. Such elements are meant to make the audience feel clever while watching this film as a beyond-hip house and synth-pop soundtrack reminds you that your CD collection could never compete with it. Cravenly expecting you to buy into all this nonsense, as well as the notion that there’s nothing more hardcore-Sartre than a fairly agreeable man-child in a shiny white satin jacket, Drive banks on American aesthetic insecurities and the tendency of some viewers to fill empty-canvas art with invented meanings. Refn’s interestingly terrible film is as close to being nothing as you can get while still having something to run through a projector.

Meanwhile, the monoculture buzz surrounding Drive has nothing to do with a sudden mass desire for the latest from the bright lunatic who gave us the gorgeously transcendent but exhausting Valhalla Rising and Bronson, a convulsively inventive, incredibly brutal film about the horrors of deformed masculinity that never forgot the broken humanity of its eponymous antihero. No, Drive instead suggests a new brand of cool, one created when an infantilized strain of Comic-Con and fanboy culture discovered serious film. It's fanboy haute couture, with its prettified coloring book simulation noir a safe pre-adolescent fantasy dotted with Mattel Hot Wheels, Peter Pans and Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Ryan Gosling, who already played a child-man in love with a doll in Lars and the Real Girl, is the perfect actor for this adult baby world.

But back to nothing. In his quest for maximum nullity, Refn’s given us a film noir that isn’t, a ‘love story’ that never materializes, and an action film with little of it shot in arty-explosive bursts — a sort of fancy-schmancy chaos cinema — instead of the rhapsodic kinetics of a Peter Yates (Bullitt) or Paul W.S. Anderson (Death Race). And for the plot, Refn — working from a screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on James Sallis’ novel — goes for the barest of bones.

(NOTE: There is one spoiler here.)

Drive is about a quiet young fellow (Gosling) with the best kid leather driving gloves money can buy. He wears that aforementioned satin jacket, the back of which sports an embroidered scorpion patch, and sports impeccably cut hair, presumably kept in place with products that contain lots of petroleum. Nobody asks him his name and he doesn’t give it; perhaps he saw Walter Hill’s The Driver at an impressionable age.

Nameless Driver works as a stunt driver in the movies while taking less savory gigs at night. His boss (Bryan Cranston) hooks him up with a mobbed-up scum bag played by Albert Brooks, who’s faintly interested in the idea of Driver tricking out a car so he can race it somewhere. Meanwhile, Driver also meets and likes a Manic Pixie named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her kid (Kaden Leos). He likes the mom enough to help prevent her violent, ex-con, loser of a husband (Oscar Isaac) from getting killed due to some amorphous shit he did in the joint.

All of this leads to a robbery that goes astray. A redhead played by Christina Hendricks gets her head blown off and Driver, his girl Irene and her kid all end up as mob targets of one sort or another, with our boyishly laconic wheelman arguably becoming a default hero defined by the film's supporters as existential, because he doesn't seem to care if he bleeds to death.

Let me clarify that I do not hate or even dislike this film, and god knows I’ve projected myself onto some blank canvasses. And there are tiny pleasures here. The painstakingly assembled electronica soundtrack by Cliff Martinez and a variety of other like-minded artists really is terrific and at times even threatens to become a sort of audio libretto to what’s not happening on-screen. The give-and-take between Brooks, Cranston and Ron Perlman offers the sparkle of old pros having a hoot, although Cranston’s performance can meander into overly twitchy weirdness.

As for the media gush about Albert Brooks playing a schmuck — I’m at a loss there. I mean, Albert Brooks has always played a schmuck; the only difference is that this time, he likes to slice people open with a straight edge razor.

Speaking of blood: I’m guessing the rationale of hiring Hendricks was that such a high ticket attraction would dupe viewers into thinking she was — how silly — a character, and not something to attach squibs to. Still, her obliteration is nothing compared to anything that happens in any given True Blood episode and yet cineastes out there are making like Refn is the second coming of Peckinpah. He isn’t. With his sudden splats, cutaways from violence and skilled sound design, he’s more like the new Tobe Hooper.

In other news, Refn’s newfound infatuation with semiotics is, if nothing else, proof his perversity didn’t die crossing Hollywood and Vine. Portentous signs and images are everywhere. For no known reason, the Los Angeles City Hall building overlooks scenes like the Eye of Sauron. A shot lingers on a super retro “BIG 6 MARKET” sign. Other signage announces “Godless America” like a sore thumb of lameness. It’s a real heart-sinker when you think how previous Refn films — fearless, strange, conceptually conflicted on purpose — actually dealt with Big Themes — Nature vs. Essential Human Identity, Identity vs. The State — as opposed to the theme at hand: Dane director dupes Americans hungry for Next Big Thing.

Meanwhile, at the screening I attended, I heard caws about noir this, and later read stuff about existential that. As a noir, Drive is a non-starter because there is no malign fate pushing Driver into a dark corner, no fatale, no awful thing that won’t stay in the past. No-Name Driver has a hard time of it because he constantly makes stupid decisions. So does Eric Cartman. Does that make South Park noir?

Meanwhile, Driver likes driving, and lives pretty much as he pleases, which would seem to preclude any thoughts of existential suffering or even mild world-weary question-asking. That is, until his boneheadedness returns, and then he’s just blasé about it, making him a hipster with a defeatist streak.

Actually, there is one great scene in Drive. It sits there, out of place, like a Post-it for Refn’s next, good film, the one that would actually meet the height requirement for film noir. Driver and Irene are in an elevator. Some terrible darkness in Driver’s gut says the other guy in the elevator is bad news, so he just up and starts beating the crap out of the guy as the elevator dings at Level 1.

But Driver can’t stop beating up this guy and we hear his victim’s skull crumbling as Irene looks on in horror at the monster that her Peter Pan has revealed himself to be. Their eyes meet, Gosling gets that woebegone, lost-boy Gosling look, and the audience is forced to ask themselves: What if he just killed some guy who never hurt anyone? What if the hero’s boyishness covers a real monster — and the hero doesn’t even know it?

A movie like that, that’d really be something.

But until we see it, the sporting thing to do is congratulate the young, hot director for his canny entry into the American market. Drive is indeed an impressive feat of hocus-pocus. Nicolas Winding Refn has accomplished the impossible — that of selling a film on the merits of qualities it so plainly doesn’t possess.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn's films, click here.

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47 Comments

  • Josh Olson | September 27, 2011 2:38 AMReply

    At a certain point, it's all a matter of taste, I suppose, but if you think the scene in the elevator is the only hint that there might be something wrong with the Driver, I'm thinking you may have been multitasking when you should have been watching. As the movie progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that the poor guy is not screwed together right. Hints are there before that scene, but after it, it's just one long descent into madness.

    Which is the film's brilliance, I think.

    A small point, but important - I know you auteurists like to think movies leap fully formed from their director's heads, but it would be nice if you'd at least give lip service to the fact that movies are, as a rule, written. In this case, the film's taut, lean and exquisite screenplay is by Hossein Amini, based on a terrific book by James Sallis.

  • Martin H. Leaf | September 26, 2011 3:48 AMReply

    I watch a lot of films. This film is unique: For its unabashed Jew hating, antisemitic cartoon caricatures of the Jews in this offal film.

    Refn or for that matter Lars von Trier can avow and disavow their alleged Jewish family, background, or roots, it doesn't make either less antisemitic Jew haters.

  • Tom | September 25, 2011 11:37 AMReply

    The book wasn't much. Its was actually a narrative mess, upon reading it you could see the film wishing to be made. I think Refn has added to a pretty thin narrative. Most films are hocus pocus (especially the car chasing action kind), they are the art of forgetting(your own mortality) and believing in a narrative for 120 minutes..paying the privilege to do so. If a film can grab your attention and keep it..then it really has achieved its desired intention...distraction x entertainment =profit.

  • tristan eldritch | September 25, 2011 7:58 AMReply

    (Continued) So I guess my argument is: even though Refn is using movie conventions and a very pulpy shorthand, he’s using it to tell a story he’s fully invested in. And the story is not some uber-cool, shallow escapism – it’s the pretty depressing story of psychopath who briefly gets to feel like a normal human by being nice to a woman and her kid. The purpose of including the admittedly hackneyed parable of the Scorpion would be to suggest that the Driver can only briefly escape from his violent nature, from who he is and the world he inhabits. But he becomes a kind of anti-hero because, even though he can’t escape from who he is, in a very movie way he sees out the noble part of his nature – a very, very old fashioned idea of a the male as a selfless protector, a hero, basically – right to the end. He Protects the Girl, and leaves the money where it belongs – in a heap on the sidewalk – and drives off into the credits, with the song that represents the ideal blaring on the stereo. Now that’s highly romanticized, even schmaltzy stuff, but it’s also a kind of primal magic of the movies when it works. And it worked, for me at any rate, in this instance.

  • tristan eldritch | September 25, 2011 7:53 AMReply

    (Continued.)
    So yeah, I think Refn builds up this sense of the Driver as a psychopath with subtle, little details – like the menacing way he flexes his knuckles before hitting Christina Hendricks’ character – and this all culminates in the elevator scene. And what makes the elevator scene particularly unsettling, and brilliant in my opinion, is not so much the violence itself, but the look Gosling gives Irene after – the look of an eager to please little boy who has just wrung a cat’s neck, and has no conception whatsoever how disturbing his behaviour is. That look – both very unsettling and a little sad – was what drew me into the movie, and this mixture of boyish honour and brutal violence, of sentiment and sadism, is really what makes Drive tick.

  • tristan eldritch | September 25, 2011 7:52 AMReply

    Well, I guess we did see a different movie, as can quite often be the case. But in attempting to answer your question How do I know this character is a psychopath?, I'll give one last blast in defense of Drive, and we can let it rest with whatever final thoughts you might have to add.

    I don't think the elevator thing was an isolated thing; actually I think it was the culmination of something Refn had skilfully built up throughout the course of the movie. When we’re first introduced to the Driver, he comes across as a pretty nice, cool dude, but there’s a slight air of unease about him nevertheless. His coolness has a slightly insular, autistic quality to it – we like him, while having a definite sense that he doesn’t entirely go with the traffic. Then when Irene’s husband gets of prison, his reaction shows us that he was a certain childlike sense of honour – he still wants to protect her, even though it seems unlikely he can ever have the kind of relationship he wants with her. At the same time, Refn continues to racket up a sense of unease about the Driver – an unease that is inseparable from his boyishness – and the scene in which he threatens to knock the guy’s teeth out is the first real indication we get that the Driver is a somewhat damaged puppy. Gosling reads the dialogue with startling vehemence, and the camera lingers uncomfortably on his face.

  • Ian Grey | September 25, 2011 5:04 AMReply

    >Drive, on the other hand, is an entirely sincere movie that uses pulp/noir >language to tell what is a pretty depressing story: a noble psychopath briefly >gets to feel like an ordinary human being

    I want to see your movie more. :)

    But already, the description you offer is filled with problems.

    Is it hyper-real? Meta-real? I mean, there is no real-world thing as a noble psychopath, and Refn doesn't pin-point us to a cinematic species we can use as a reference for some fantasy anti-hero, and if he means Melville and/or Walter Hill it would be my opinion he's chosen to make a film readable only to a clutch of cineastes which, man, how boring, and anyway, I don't think he's like that by a mile.

    I ket harping on the word "nothing" in the review not to be an asshole but to mean it as a quantifiable thing. Refn has a theme in his films: his men are so profoundly fucked up they don't hate or want women. Women are these baffling things--so they go somewhere and smash something, which to Refn, so far, is the curse of masculinity.

    This is somewhere between what you're talking about and BRONSON. It's this nothing zone. It isn't like in TAXI DRIVER where you get a sense of Travis constantly battling with his sense of what women might be, from his pitiable/pitiful attempts to connect in some sad way, this is just...nothing.

    How do I even know he's a psychopath? Because he beat the crap out of that guy? One signifier a character makes?

    Anyway, it's good engaging with someone instead of the net trollery you get sometimes, you know?

    I think I understand your POV. I think it's completely supportable and I totally don't agree!

  • Ian Grey | September 24, 2011 7:20 AMReply

    "Noir is an extraordinary broad spectrum"

    I'd like to make the somewhat meta argument that noir, by nature of what it is and does and what it's about, is already constricting in nature.

    It was originally about a clipped writing style using as few words as possible to describe a fatalist universe where there were fewer and fewer possibilities later used to describe a traumatized war and post-war American psyche that lacked the spiritual vocabulary to describe their agonies.

    Various movements have cut and pasted those elements onto other things but the reason they're easily reused is their relative tininess.

    I'm being slightly reductionist pointedly when I quote that defining moment in Henry Hathaway's THE DARK CORNER, which extracts even the fatale from the picture, yet loses nothing I think, and has a certain honest, agonized gutter poetry DRIVER is too hip to bother with and if id did it would be arch:

    "There goes my last lead. I feel all dead inside. I'm backed up in a dark corner, and I don't know who's hitting me."

    Anyway, that tininess is why noir is so often modified: neo-noir, post-noir, Gallic-noir, Steampunk-noir, Brooklyn noir, Barcelona noir, on and on.

    It's gone around again to litetary noir where all it is is fatalism, a raised eyebrow and a sorry end. A pose, in other words. Which is great--I'm very haute couture-friendly. I'd take any Alexander McQueen show over 90% of filmmakers in the last ten years. It's a thing.

    The pose can be highest art. But noir's been sucked dry so many times, maybe Refn has done something defensible by treating it as a meta-joke?

    That's a honest inquiry, by the way.

  • tristan eldtritch | September 24, 2011 5:46 AMReply

    Personally, I don't agree with you about noir being restrictive, for the following reason. I think its always been acknowledged that noir is one of the most slippery and elusive genres to categorize, because it is defined as much by mood, ambiance, and setting as anything else. You can define it by means of certain familiar plot motifs, yeah, but that in itself doesn't adequately define it. Malign fate, femme fatales, dark things from the past - these could all be part of a Dallas story-arc, but this in itself that doesn't make Dallas noir. The most important aspect of noir has always been certain very difficult to define qualities - a certain type of mood, atmosphere, lighting, or setting create noir - but, that said, night, the city, and fatalism would be crucial elements. (Yes, maybe that pliability leads to an overabundance of noir and subspecies of noir, but what the hell - you take each on their own individual merits or de-merits.)

    I don't agree that Drive treats noir as a meta-joke - that may be your personal reaction, but its very unlikely to be Refn's intention. If a self-conscious use of conventions bothers you, then it may that your objection is to the whole corpus of neo-noir, which is fair enough. Melville's La Samouri was highly self-conscious in how it used noir movie motifs, so you could say that it is "meta" , but it was no joke - Melville believed in these conventions, they were a religion to him. If anything sucks noir dry, and treats it like a meta-joke, it would be films like Brick. Drive, on the other hand, is an entirely sincere movie that uses pulp/noir language to tell what is a pretty depressing story: a noble psychopath briefly gets to feel like an ordinary human being, through a kind of half relationship with a woman and her son, and then gets shot straight into a hell of escalating sadism. And yeah, the characters aren't well drawn, or whatever, but the movie makes no claims to realism - Refn models Drive on movie language and faery tales - but nevertheless, its not a meta-joke, its a story that the director and star are fully invested in.

  • Ian Grey | September 24, 2011 3:40 AMReply

    Just as you don't have to have three kids to be a patriarch, you don't need to be on a mania binge to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. You don't even need to have a pixie cut when you're Zooey Deschanel, MPDG brunette, neurotic model, sell-by date: Please God, soon.

    What matters is a willingness to be winsome, which describes the roles given Carey Mulligan to a tee. I mean, even her eyelashes are MPDGs.

    A MPDG is hetero male's indie-pop fembot in a vintage off-label Mary Quant dress. That's the main DNA but it's morphed as the boys discover new bands to people their dreams with cuter, less character-encumbered dream girls.

    Basically, it's passive-aggressive anti-feminism.

  • Tristan Eldritch | September 24, 2011 1:04 AMReply

    Man, I almost never get angry about reviews, but this.....There are so many passages here that just seem like the author plying an affected, trying to hard to impress style that have little or nothing to do with the film. "No, Drive instead suggests a new brand of cool, one created when an infantilized strain of Comic-Con and fanboy culture discovered serious film. It’s fanboy haute couture, with its prettified coloring book simulation noir a safe pre-adolescent fantasy dotted with Mattel Hot Wheels, Peter Pans and Manic Pixie Dream Girls." What? (Apart from everything else, like the earlier commenter, I've no idea where you're getting manic from.) What has this got to do with Nicolas Refn or Drive? Your writing suggests an infantilized strain of undergraduate who has just discovered dated buzz-words like "semiotics", and thinks its somehow impressive to use them even where they're not particularly relevant.

    The passage where you argue that Drive isn't noir is frankly dreadful. Noir is an extraordinary broad spectrum that can derive from a variety of things, and you reduce it to a small number of hackneyed bullet points ("Malign fate",fatales",pretty insightful stuff!) Your "argument" against Drive being a noir could also be made against Le Samouri and a variety of other films, if you'll pardon my sophomoric, Jeopardy-level allusion to high culture.

    You say:
    "What if the hero’s boyishness covers a real monster — and the hero doesn’t even know it?

    A movie like that, that’d really be something.

    Dude, that's EXACTLY the movie Drive was. It's clearly suggested form the get-go that Gosling's character may be a kind of autistic psychopath. Did you even watch it, or were you already eagerly composing vapid expressions like "fanboy haute couture"?

    Sorry for the really trollish comment.

  • Joe C. | September 23, 2011 3:28 AMReply

    Regardless of the opinions expressed pro-con 'Drive' it's lovely to see a comments section with guys like Matt Seitz throwing down. Whether you agree with Grey or not, his writing is as finely-tuned as one of Gossling's Mopar monstrosities. There's no denying an acute feel for the craft of filmmaking and a way of conferring it that doesn't feel like the atypical, horseshit, ramshackle amateur criticism that the web is overflowing, nay HEMORRHAGING with.

    I shall be returning hence. Love the vibe here.

  • StephenM | September 22, 2011 1:00 AMReply

    Alspo, 7. As already noted, the elevator guy is shown being given orders by Nino to go check the driver out. We then see him in the elevator, looking very suspicious. The driver looks over at him and sees he has a gun in his jacket. ONly then does he kiss the girl, before turning to the man, who immediately begins reaching for his gun. Then he kills him. So while you're comments are an interesting hypothetical for a scene in another movie, they do not relate to this one, where the bad guy is never even hinted to NOT be a bad guy.

  • StephenM | September 21, 2011 12:53 PMReply

    1. Mulligan is NOT a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. There is noting manic about her. She does not come into his life for the express purpose of changing it. He is more of an actor than she is, so her only resemblance to classic MPDGs like Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown is being cute. She is a dream girl, true, but that type has been around about as long as movies, and the man who falls in love with the dream girl but is separated from her by violence is a fairly universal archetype. See My Darling Clementine, Shane, etc.

    2. Refn premiered the film at Cannes, where it won a prize, so I don't think its purpose is simply to put one over on Americans who feel bad about their own movies. If you're right, he apparently put one over on the French, who just about invented existentialism, as well.

    3. Not sure where you get the assertion that this is supposed to be high culture-hard philosophy. It's an arty action flick. I've heard people call it a masterpiece, but it's nearly always called a masterpiece of style and mood. I haven't heard anyone talk about its intellectual and philosophical complexity.

    4. The first car chase/cat and mouse scene is better than anything Paul W. S. Anderson has ever done or will ever do.

    5. I saw the film twice, and both times I thought it said God Bless America--it is written on an American flag on the side of a pawn shop, right? Granted, that's still an obvious political slap, but it hardly seems like enough to be described as a strategy of pretentious grasping at semiotics for fake complexity--it's one sign, and it's the type of jab that other filmmakers make all the time.

    6. Since when does noir have to have the hero driven by malign fate until he's dead? The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep don't have that. Nevertheless, I get your point. I just see Gosling as an interesting variation on an archetype (of cool professionalism) rather than a figure who has to follow certain rules or he doesn't count.

  • Troels Hundtofte | September 21, 2011 6:26 AMReply

    Oh and as for the elevator scene and the questionable moral actions of Driver. Did anyone else see this as a kind of Greedo situation? I seem to remember that the minute Driver turns to deal with the man and we cut to the wide, the man is already trying to unholster his gun? Can anyone confirm this?

    It might seem miniscule, but I actually think it changes things drastically. Because if the man had done nothing and not tried to defend himself until after Driver had attacked him, it's not entirely sure we would've gotten to the skull-crushing. I can easily imagine a jumpy Driver pulling the same stunt on an innocent, and perhaps pushing him violent against the wall only to realize his mistake.

    But when the guy is instinctively reaching for his piece even as Driver turns, it would in his mind confirm his suspicions, and "justify" the goon's horrible fate.

    Just a thought.

  • Troels Hundtofte | September 21, 2011 6:19 AMReply

    There seems to be a backlash against Drive because it's getting high critical and arthouse plaudits in spite of meaning very little. That is, the ire directed at the film doesn't really seem to have to do with the fact that it's fairly straight-forward and uncomplicated, but that it has the gall to, perhaps involuntarily, inspire serious debate.

    I could be wrong, but that's what seems to be going on in this review, which spends a lot of time talking about all the things the film isn't. And in looking for all the things it is supposed to be the reviewer finds nothing and therefore reaches the logical conclusion that the film IS nothing. Because it isn't the thing you expected it to be, or the thing others make it out to be.

    However, a film must stand on its own merits. Does Drive really want to be a profound examination of a complex dichotomous psyche whose lapses into ultra-violence are there to be symbolic or metaphorical indictments of any kind? Refn often talks about how he's not an analytical filmmaker, that he shoots what he wants to see, not necessarily what makes sense. The problem reviews like this face is that art-house movies are supposed to MEAN something. I'd imagine the writer here probably would be fine with a lot of "dumb" exploitative genre movies and regularly consume them as simply easily digested fluff.

    But the conundrum of Drive seems to be that it's neither here nor there. If it's supposed to be throw-away entertainment, then how come it's so interestingly shot? How come it lingers on characters in silence and presents us with long musical vignettes and genre-bending aesthetics?

    Drive's refusal to be categorized is, I think, what rubs some people the wrong way. It's as if there are two standards, or protocols for how to critically evaluate film One for the disposable genre-piece and one for serious cinema. And Drive is being treated as serious cinema by virtue of the fact that it isn't ordinary.

    Otherwise I'm not sure I understand this reviewer's obsession with semiotics in the film. I actually didn't even pick up on it when I saw it. Perhaps because I wasn't looking for any hidden meaning or secret subtext. But in going with Refn's self-professed non-analytical mindset the shot could've easily been an inside joke. It actually strikes me as something Lars Von Trier would do, or even Werner Herzog, if for no other reason than because "life is a long pointless seance of meaninglessness".

    I kid....kinda.

    Drive, to me, was an immersive, visceral fantasy that means very little in a very big way. :)

  • Ash | September 21, 2011 4:29 AMReply

    Although @The Dead Burger, I did enjoy reading your interpretation, too! The wonder of cinema...

  • Ash | September 21, 2011 4:26 AMReply

    @marrk

    "amazing review, by the way. this is the first film i can think of where i thoroughly enjoyed it but agree almost completely with a very poor review. that’s definitely a sign of a well-written, well thought-out, well argued review. kudos, ian."

    Concur totally with this. A rare treat, indeed. I think Refn finds himself in an interesting position; here is a fiercely talented technical filmmaker who has made a film almost vehemently devoid of substance, yet a slew of critics and bloggers are queuing up to read masses into it.

    There's a difference between going away from a film and making up a character's backstory/guessing what may or may not be driving (arf!) them, and a genuinely allusive psychological character study (say, Taxi Driver)

    Ash
    http://permanentplastichelmet.com

  • JB | September 21, 2011 3:20 AMReply

    An empty film? Anything but. The fact that this film doesn't need lengthy dialogue and spelled-out, obvious, in-depth relationships to give it meaning and, well depth, is what makes it so good. If you can't understand the story and commentary that is really going on, you are lazy and just looking for the director to point it out to you. A few of your lines are over-generalizations, and a few are just completely unwarranted. If you expected a fuller movie that's one thing, but try not to leap to conclusions and make declarations that are simply unjustified.

  • JLM | September 21, 2011 1:49 AMReply

    This movie was so terrible people were laughing at it in the theater. There were literally about 10 or more scenes in which people just thought it was so ridiculous and stupid the entire room burst out into laughter. Also, can we talk about how there were only about 20 lines of dialogue in the movie? Pro tip: Catchy tunes and melodramatic stares do not make a good movie.

  • tmack | September 20, 2011 4:48 AMReply

    This review offends me, not because Gray dislikes the film but that he seems to dislike it on the basis of what it isn't rather than what it is. I don't believe that anyone who sees a lot of movies and thinks about them seriously would say that Refn's Drive is as good as, say, Mann's Collateral. But it really doesn't have to be as good as that movie, it just has to connect with the audience and make good on the promise it makes in the opening sequence--and it does that...extremely well.

    Most would agree that the film showcases Refn's stylistic strengths with a story that doesn't have much meat on the bones and one we've all seen in a variety of renditions over the years. Having read an early draft of the script, I'm astounded at what Refn did with it and I'm sure any studio would be equally astonished and very pleased with the final product. For style alone, aided and abetted by Gosling's fantastic performance, Drive is both intriguing and exhilirating.

    This isn't rocket science and it's not meant to be.

  • The Dead Burger | September 20, 2011 3:53 AMReply

    *gourged, not forged

  • The Dead Burger | September 20, 2011 3:51 AMReply

    I feel like a lot of critics, even those who gave it positive reviews, may be missing the point or just not going into the film with the right mindset - a barebones plot and heavy stylization doesn't mean the movie is shallow, it's just far more subtle than most. The intelligent, deconstructionist themes are neatly tucked away into the subtext of the direction; that is to say, it's not the events that matter, it's how they are depicted. I've forged myself on interviews with Gosling and Refn and it seems clear that the film is a commentary on the glamorization of violence in cinema. Driver's job as a stunt driver shows his obsession with movies, or at least that he is deeply marinated in the culture of myth. His idolization of action heroes and their deeds informs his every move - he doesn't have much of a real relationship with Irene, but he sees her as an anti-femme fatale, projects onto her the notion of the damsel in distress, to effectively make himself a hero.

    This notion also pops up in the depiction of the violence, at once thrilling and sort of horrific. The lighting, the pacing, the sound all make the moments of action exciting, but when we see the look on Driver's face, it's savage and full of rage, reminding us that these things that "heroes" do that we worship in action cinema are really horrible, brutal things, and no righteous intent can vindicate that.

    In the end, Driver realizes the horror of what he's done, and so he drives away, both literally and figuratively leaving the story, and returning to a static neutrality.


    I feel like this is actually a very clear and poignant commentary, one of the best critiques we've had in a while of not only film, but of the fundamental failure of storytelling to paint an ethically or emotionally accurate picture of life and what it means to be a hero. I'm not sure how so many critics missed out on this, and I definitely don't know how you could call the film empty.

    And lest you say I'm merely filling in a blank canvas with my own thoughts (which is what all art is, anyway, no work can objectively say something), I should reiterate that this is all based on information I've gathered from reading interviews and talking to NWR.

  • Kenneth Tan | September 20, 2011 3:17 AMReply

    @Jason/Matt -- I think his decision to kiss first and kill later is what makes this scene work in it's own unique way:
    a) the dispatched assassin says "wrong floor" and stays in the elevator;
    b) The Driver notices the gun in his pocket;
    c) he then goes in for the kiss; and then
    d) he demolishes that guy.

    We didn't get to see a movie where he accidently kills an innocent bystander; instead, we see a movie where he considers a) and b) and then goes for c) first, because d) is gonna be really disgusting and insane. You see it in her reaction when they're standing at the bottom of the elevator -- "that thing we did right before? Hot. After? Really weird." Lots of "wtf?" awkward snorts in the screening I attended.

  • Willem | September 19, 2011 11:17 AMReply

    "Let me clarify that I do not hate or even dislike this film"

    Really? You could have fooled me. Your hostility towards DRIVE - which is actually aimed more towards the other critics/viewers who did like it, if you ask me - is almost oozing from my screen.

    Just one note (there could be a lot more, but I do not have time to write a point-by-point rebuttal, but this one immediately stood out): how is Mulligan's character (or non-character, as you would have it) in any way "Manic"? Feels like you're just latching on to a trend that was launched on the web a few years back (The AV Club was first I think) as a lazy shorthand. Yes, you might describe her as a sort of "dreamgirl" - but "manic"? Surely not.

  • Nickd | September 19, 2011 5:21 AMReply

    I was just watching Drive with a buddy of mine today, who was practically yelling at me after I told him I thought the movie was a dud. This is a much better articulation of my feelings than I was able to come up with. Thanks!

  • Ian Grey | September 19, 2011 4:33 AMReply

    And please excuse my syntax--you really need to be up to speed to talk Drive's muti-tiered zero-o-sity!

  • Ian Grey | September 19, 2011 4:32 AMReply

    >he connects with Mulligan’s character

    But her "character" has to be put in quotes as she really is just the latest Manic Pixie Dream Girls--complete with pixie cut so as to avoid confusion, I guess--which as a male-generated type that's entirely the limp issue of male comix-based fantasy anti-adds *another* layer of nothing.

    As a fantasy iteration of something that doesn't exist on at least three levels of studied falseness, how can she who is nothing, cause Driver, who's disinterested in doing or not doing anything, to do something when not doing is the reason he has no name?

    At least there's the fun of trying to negotiate all the layers of negation just to talk about Drive!

  • Jason Bellamy | September 19, 2011 1:56 AMReply

    This seems to be mostly figured out now, but since there's still some confusion on the elevator scene:

    * Yes, we see the gunman receive orders. So we know who he is.

    * MZS is right, of course, that Gosling's character is playing a hunch. But Gosling's character notices a gun in that guy's coat, and ...

    * This is after the guy shows up on the "wrong floor," and then doesn't get out of the elevator or seem to be going anywhere. So that raises Driver's suspicions in the first place and then the gun confirms his hunch (in his mind). (Agree with MZS that it would be great to a see a movie in which an innocent is killed by accident in a scenario like this, although it doesn't need to happen in this movie.)

    None of the above is meant to defend the scene's realism; if Driver thought the guy was a threat, he'd have been wise to kill first and kiss later. Just recapping the information that's on the screen.

  • TC Kirkham | September 18, 2011 7:28 AMReply

    I have to say I could not disagree with the writer of this article more - I think DRIVE is easily one of if not the best film of the year so far. I love its look, its feel, its sound, and the fact that Refn can get an incredible performance out of his actors with so little dialogue.

    Is it noir? Not really, not even the "hyper-noir" style like "Brick" or "Lucky Number Slevin". Perhaps the term we could coin would be "nouveau Miami Vice' because stylistically, that's what it reminded me of - it had a very '80s vibe throughout from the visuals to the soundtrack.

    Granted, I can see where it would turn some people off - some people don't like this style - but it was PERFECT for me. I hope people give it a real chance.

  • Charles Judson | September 18, 2011 6:32 AMReply

    I never read Driver's anonymity as cool. I read it more as a by-product of who Driver is. He is a man of few actions whose entire reason for existing revolves around cars. As his identity is defined by that, his name holds little importance. He's the Id personified.

    In relation to others, it is also of little concern because everyone around him is more invested in what he does than who is as well. From Cranston's character who already exploits Drivers skills and wants to take that exploitation to another level, to Albert Brooks's ex-producer turned gangster who is convinced to back Cranston after seeing Driver in action.

    It's interesting that shame has been brought up, because I think the Driver's preternatural calmness reinforces the idea that for the most part he's felt little shame or remorse. Which definitely ties back to his having no name. As a concept, bringing dishonor or shame to a family name is all about one's relation to society at large. When one has no ties or official position in a society having a name become increasingly irrelevant because that person has no emotional or social bonds at risk. They can walk away from any situation with ease.

    This is touched on by how Driver and Irene explicitly do not interact or even acknowledge each other at the beginning of the film. And again when we learn that Driver is also a stuntman, who not only works in anonymity, but has to assume the identity of the star he's driving in place of. His showing no concern when he's told the stunt was changed at the last minute also further divides him from those around him, driving is driving, that is all.

    Driver is an isolated character with nothing to lose or gain, until he connects with Mulligan's character. Which I find fascinating since many noir's are about characters having their original identities subsumed or subverted by their more base instincts and decisions (Gillis in Sunset Boulevard or Neff in Double Indemnity). Not many characters in noir evolve, they usually devolve.

  • Ian | September 18, 2011 6:18 AMReply

    Or shame, for that matter.

  • Ian Grey | September 18, 2011 6:16 AMReply

    I'm interested to know why anonymity confers cool as opposed to cowardice.

  • Marrrk | September 18, 2011 3:30 AMReply

    I had a similar reaction at the end of the elevator scene; it was certainly the most invested in the story i had felt.

    interesting aside about that scene: in the theater i watched it at there was a problem and the visuals cut out right after Driver and the henchmen eye each other up. the screen went to black but the sound kept going. everyone in the theater had seen the trailer and knew the action set-piece that was to follow, with Gosling grabbing the guy from behind and slamming him into the door, so most wondered if this was actually part of the scene: the music swelling over black (as they kiss) for about 30 seconds and then the visuals coming back just as the action starts.

    it wasn't. of course, but i think i would have enjoyed that better.

    amazing review, by the way. this is the first film i can think of where i thoroughly enjoyed it but agree almost completely with a very poor review. that's definitely a sign of a well-written, well thought-out, well argued review. kudos, ian.

  • John Armstrong | September 18, 2011 2:48 AMReply

    I'm interested in knowing if you can draw a line between Gosling's "Nameless Driver" and Eastwood's "Man With No Name" or Delon's "Samourai" Costello. Or do you have the same complaints about them?

  • John Armstrong | September 18, 2011 1:34 AMReply

    I think it does confer shame. I definitely read Gosling's Driver as having something to hide -- not to mention a pattern of escapism -- even before he suggested to Irene that they run away together, where he'd surely have another meeting like the one Shannon described. He's done this before, and he will do it again, screwing things up and running away, just as you say. And he responds not by improving himself, but by hardening himself against the world that little bit more.

    The difference this time around, and what I found interesting, is that despite his shell, Irene and Benicio do bring him real joy, and a hope for escape from his cycle. Of course it all goes to hell in the end because he just can't manage actual self-improvement, but we at least see him wanting good for something outside himself.

  • Craig Simpson | September 17, 2011 12:17 PMReply

    I actually don't remember the guy in the elevator getting orders, either, but I'm possibly forgetting that. I do, however, recall Gosling noticing a gun bulging in the guy's jacket, so it's not just an instinct he's acting on.

  • Matthew Seitz | September 17, 2011 10:22 AMReply

    The fact that we saw the elevator henchman being given orders to kill in a previous scene does not invalidate Grey's point. The hero himself wasn't present for the giving of the order; he's just acting on a sixth sense.

    Movie heroes do that kind of thing all the time, but Grey's point is an interesting one. The notion of a fairly traditional lone wolf/man of action character acting on a hunch and killing a man, then turning out to have been completely wrong, is a scene in a film that I would very much like to see.

  • Ian Grey | September 17, 2011 9:25 AMReply

    But again--WTF with the semiotics? Why am I staring at "Godless America"? Obviously it's a joke, but on what/who/why?

    Everything Refn does is for a reason. What is it?

  • Ian Grey | September 17, 2011 9:13 AMReply

    >>uh… but WE know the guy in the elevator is there to kill Gosling because we saw him being told to do so in a previous scene. So…

    Really? I missed that. My apology (I always try to emphasize mistakes made--I can't stand film writers who come off as the Kings of Infallibilia).

    But my point is still the same, that a film that focused on a horrific ambiguity--which would make it an actual film noir--that would be a whole other film, a way better film.

  • Ian Grey | September 17, 2011 9:06 AMReply

    >It’s possible Refn North-Americanized his directorial debut,

    Hi JR, nice to meet a fan of the film with such an open mind about my view.

    I totally think he did. But what do you think "North-Americanized" mean?

    Knowing what a, uh, character he is, I can't help but think he dumbed it down, but while grinning--but was the grin affectionate, or was it the grin of a European who still rages over Bush and looks at Rick Perry and Sarah Palin with terror?

  • Melvillain | September 17, 2011 8:24 AMReply

    Drive has a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I love Refn, but I was hoping that Drive's inflated score was honestly earned. I'll consider myself warned. Maybe the choice of a hot pink script font was telling us more than anyone wants to admit.

  • Paul | September 17, 2011 8:07 AMReply

    Good piece. I've not seen Drive yet, but I've seen a lot of Refn's work, good bad and indifferent, and "interestingly terrible" sounds about right. I like your capsule piece on Bronson - but the film's interest in the protagonist's "broken humanity" was all there in the script, which Refn never failed to traduce while publicising the film, something that I think is indicative of his slightly infantile insecurity.

  • Stone | September 17, 2011 7:13 AMReply

    It really just came across as a film version of grand theft auto, with much less storyline.

  • JR | September 17, 2011 6:53 AMReply

    Invigorating, critical review. Thanks for taking the time to approach cinema from such a seasoned position.

    Regrettably, I fall into the infantalized fan-boy hipster coming-of-age category, because I loved this film. I admit many of the shortcomings you point out are probably true. I have a slight philosophical bent, and I would have liked to see more existential drama, but in my eyes the film achieves something greater than your average "dude-overcoming-inner-struggle" romp.

    It is stylistically triumphant: the tone near the beginning is tense, but the soundtrack adds a shot of aloof flavor to the mix. As the film progresses, gone are the neon nights, and in its place are conspicuously absent heavy-handed stylistic touches. No night drive, just the stark, quick violence, which was neither glamorized nor glossed over. To me this channeled Animal Kingdom, in its method of portraying violence in a neutral way. When the "glamour" music returns, it's only in the end scene, which I won't spoil. This is the beauty of his direction and editing. You say the audience is being duped, but I think this film is more a question of subtlety. Instead of beating us over the head with themes Dark-Knight style, Refn gives us time to digest, and only once Kavinsky's Nightdrive returns do we understand this film as a whole.

    It's possible Refn North-Americanized his directorial debut, and I would have to look into who produced the film, and what their influence might have been. You don't seem to mention the book in your review, and I think it's best I read it to fully understand the themes. I want to find out if Refn pulled off art or, as you say, is tricking the audience into thinking this is something more than it is.

    Thanks again, you have inspired me to take more film classes to better understand genre and direction.

  • Patrick Cooper | September 17, 2011 6:35 AMReply

    How is Refn supposed to be "duping" us? He made a brilliant little character piece with Drive. You wrote a tedious and boring review.

  • RGMike | September 17, 2011 5:41 AMReply

    uh... but WE know the guy in the elevator is there to kill Gosling because we saw him being told to do so in a previous scene. So...

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