Drive is the type of hyper-stylized film that only aims to get the viewer to stare.
Film is obviously a visual medium. How a film looks can often be more important than what it’s about. But where do we draw the line between style and substance? When is impeccable cinematography enough to transcend a lack of three-dimensional characters, skilled writing or a story that actually means something? How you answer that question will likely determine whether you see much virtue in Drive, the sleekly-crafted, Ryan Gosling-propelled and Nicolas Winding Refn-directed vehicle that, story-wise, does little more than blow smoke while spinning donuts in the parking lot.
Upon its release in 2011, you’d be hard-pressed to find negative critical opinion of this neo-noir film. A kick-ass soundtrack, a plethora of tracking shots, askew camera angles and some truly remarkable lighting seemed to distract most critics from the dearth of human emotion in this film. Terms like “arthouse action” and “taut thriller” were bandied about. In the same breath, these plaudits often derided mainstream audiences (declaring that the usual Michael Bay-watching troglodyte wouldn’t get a film like Drive) while elevating the same kind of cardboard-cutout characters to something profound—and mostly because of the pretty lights.
Drive’s story is as simplistic as its title. Ryan Gosling’s unnamed and ultra-skilled getaway driver (which I’ll refer to simply as “Gosling” from here on out) also brings in cash through gigs as a movie stunt driver and, less glamorously, through his mechanic work at a L.A. garage. The shop’s owner, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), gets him entangled with organized crime when he hits up the articulate and imposing Bernie (Albert Brooks) for a stock car investment. He does this because Gosling’s skills are apparently a game-changer, though we’re given little background (one slick opening car chase notwithstanding) on what exactly sets him apart from any number of other skilled stunt (or getaway) drivers in the greater Los Angeles area. Meanwhile, Gosling strikes up a sort-of romance with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), their interactions largely consisting of unbroken eye-contact, nearly monosyllabic verbal exchanges and knowing half-smiles. He helps her out when her car breaks down and then takes a shine to her kid, and this is the deepest insight we get into our nameless protagonist whose most defining feature is a badass and increasingly blood-stained scorpion jacket.
The thing is—though they’ve had a hell of a good time staring and smiling at each other, and Gosling has even spent some time skipping stones with the kid—Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), soon gets released from prison. That puts the kibosh on the brief hand-holding and longing stares. Ultimately, though, Gosling’s fixation on the wellbeing of Irene and the boy leads him to offer his getaway driver skills to Standard so the ex-con can knock over a pawn shop to pay back a prison protection debt. Things don’t go well, and people start dying left and right (in gorily ultraviolent ways, including Christina Hendricks briefly showing up mainly so her head can get obliterated by a shotgun) as Gosling tries to blast, stab and stomp his way into disentangling Irene from any connection with the fancy knife-obsessed Bernie.
Bereft of any personality or explicitly redeeming qualities, Gosling is our anti-hero for no other reason than that he really doesn’t want a woman and child to get murdered. Not exactly that much different than your run-of-the-mill action hero. While no one can be faulted for being entranced by the at-times spectacular lighting in this film, it’s difficult to understand the bevy of praise thrown Gosling’s way for his acting. The guy doesn’t do much else than keep the same look on his face while shifting around a toothpick, yet critics likened his performance to that of a young Steve McQueen or Robert De Niro. But at least he did an adequate job with what he was given. The script contains such gems as Cranston saying “He couldn’t find pussy in a whorehouse” and Gosling threatening “How about this: shut your mouth, or I’ll kick your teeth down your throat and shut it for you.” In fact, Gosling is prone to repeating “how about this” and “do you understand” in variously menacing ways. Meanwhile, Brooks is as snarky as ever, but as the villain he is mostly given expository lines like “The money always flows up,” and “So you stole from the East Coast mob.”
Look, I get it—the lighting in the neo-noir Drive is really fucking cool. Whether sun flare or shadow, transcendent glow or dingy grit, Refn creates a crime film that is often pleasant to look at. Set it to chill tunes and it’s little wonder why a lot of people liked this movie. In the famed elevator scene, the almost supernatural glow of a slow-motion kiss contrasted with the ugliness of a skull-shattering face-stomping that follows does make for an interesting visual. But when you have the capability for such style, why waste it on the usual crime genre MacGuffins? Why should we endure hammy zingers, bad romance and otherwise cookie-cutter dialogue uttered by forgettable characters? Does enough slow-motion to kill a sloth equate to profundity when set to ambient music? Despite its notable cinematography, Drive is the type of hyper-stylized film that only aims to get the viewer to stare.