Drive (2011, Nicholas Winding Refn)

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!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

The first scene in Drive is a shadowy, instantly enveloping introduction to a smoky neo-noir universe, as much Sweet Smell of Success as Collateral. In the absorbingly procedural fashion of a crime drama fused with Hitchcockian thriller intensity, we follow Ryan Gosling as a nameless getaway driver (stunt driver and mechanic by day) dispassionately carting off a pair of criminals to safety with a number of close calls and false starts that leave the viewer’s heart in his or her throat. We’re given no more information than we need to sense the constant, oppressive danger and the catharsis of the three men’s victory, really just Gosling’s. What a pity that this fascinating piece of cinema precedes a hoary, fanboy-targeted gangster film drenched in unearned irony and smug self-regard, one of the most risible films to somehow gain its level of acclaim in the last few years.

It should be evidence of the trouble to come, though, that in this initial sequence the audience is not in Gosling’s seat — he’s coolly, mysteriously nonchalant even as everything seems poised to blow up in his face — but that of the robbers in back, about whom we know nothing. We’re meant to be scared, tense, and in awe about the driver’s wily, close-call theatrics, the way he just smirks slightly when presented with another obstacle, the way he unsentimentally and monosyllabically completes the task at hand then nonchalantly moves on with his life. That speaks to not just the blank hero worship that later artificially muddies itself up to create hyper-stupid “conflict,” but also the way that the entire film is essentially a non-story with the depth of a rather simple and destructive video game. And besides, haven’t we enough gangster films now? Enough ceaselessly unpleasant and emptily macho actioners of people we don’t care a lick about slaughtering and torturing one another for no reason?

This can’t be pinned down just to my aversion to the genre and stylistics; Drive is a really, really stupid film about a nonentity of a human being whose composition as a character is so half-assed he seems perpetually to be on the level of his six year-old neighbor. Drive turns out not to be a suspenser about his criminal activity, you see, but really is a hackneyed love story in which Gosling falls for his pretty neighbor, willing victim Carrie Mulligan, and fancies himself her “protector” of sorts, even after her estranged husband gets home from prison and is evidently not a fan of The Notebook. Said husband lamentably has mob debts that land Gosling in direct crime-trouble of the traditional movie-world variety. One botched bank robbery later, we’re firmly in sadistic, nihilistic Taxi Driver territory, with everything serving as evidence of course of the sugar-sweet romantic core of Gosling’s heart, which he finds time to express in between bashing people’s heads in with his boot.

I’m not sure whether I can critique Ryan Gosling’s acting as I have no context to do so — this is in fact the first film I’ve seen him in, but in this he’s a gawking dopey dipshit striving in vain for Steve McQueen but more easily managing a clueless Michael Keaton. We’re meant to read whatever we want into his face, and online crits have certainly followed suit — but it’s awfully easy to fool yourself into thinking there’s some substance to this film and performance that really only exists in the viewer’s head. Without that striving for meaning, the romance in particular is obscenely drab and silly: Gosling and Mulligan gaze into one another’s eyes ineffectually, occasionally working up enough energy to recite a half-remembered Hallmark card. These two commit some of the lesser offenses here; Albert Brooks, giver of one of the best film performances of the last thirty years in Broadcast News, is the worst he’s ever been by far here, as a toughened gangster straight from a direct-to-video Carlito’s Way sequel. His performance, the fact that he would even stoop to this subhuman, sub-first grade level, is the greatest tragedy of this miserable film.

But what makes the violence in Drive so offensive, so horribly unnecessary? It’s the way it revels — not in terms of screen time, but in terms of indulging in its own moral catharsis because it so faithfully believes in Gosling’s character, in the “necessary evil” he propagates. It gives him a couple of brief doubts; watch, in the interminable elevator scene, the moment when he enjoys a brief makeout with Mulligan (in slow motion, of course) just before he smashes a man to a pulp, as a sort of farewell to her inevitable conception of him, given up by the heavy-handed symbolism of the door closing between them. Gosling is a Nice Guy, right, he just does What He Has to Do. The film is hardly alone in this deeply flawed, simplistic perception of the behavior of an innately violent person — it’s in good company with the overrated classic Lawrence of Arabia, which features its screeching blank slate title character voicing doubts about his actions that the film seems to simultaneously promote as evidence of his complexity and to laugh off as the wrinkles of a great, unironic and bepedestaled capital-H Hero. The films want it both ways: they want the hero worship, the “sensitive” tackling of violence that’s always, of course, in the right — but they also want to half-heartedly offer up a sense that girl, I didn’t really want to squeeze the life out of him but I did it for you. (Or for the Arabs, as the case may be.) This is comic book stuff, a movie we’re meant to sit back and be in awe about — it doesn’t engage, and it’s certainly not subjective in any meaningful cinematic way. It offers up Gosling as a sort of 2010s spin on Travis Bickle, a lot of macho noise and pseudo-complexity but really an excuse for the kind of hateful wallowing directors like Nicholas Winding Refn (and Martin Scorsese) seem to love the most.

Scorsese isn’t the only director superficially robbed here; Kubrick’s suggested by the use of a movie mask in one of the later killings, itself a Godfather homage, but most of all what we’re getting here is a mashup of the cold ’80s and ’90s crime thrillers of Michael Mann, elevated in true nostalgic fashion to provide for the sort of extremity and logical conclusions that presumably Mann’s mainstream audiences wouldn’t have warmed to. The more Refn veers toward the various motifs and fixations of his heroes, the better the film is; all of its commendable elements hark back to a post-Klute, pre-Heat Hollywood — the magnificently chilly color palette, the use of soft rock as an endless soundtrack to utter nighttime self-assurance, the “pure style” of perfume ads and David Fincher music videos. Of course, a lot of those movies are awful too, clichéd and silly and unsophisticated in their adoration of body counts and Esquire Magazine pseudo-complexity, a crummy empowerment for shallow guys. That’s what’s most bothersome about Drive: it pretends to critique this empty Me-decade action film universe, but really just duplicates it, more nastily and hatefully than ever.

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