Thursday, October 6, 2011

Flick of The Day: Drive

Canadian actor Ryan Gosling has carved out a niche for himself over the past few years as the American Indie scene's go-to guy for quirky leading roles, with star making turns in Half Nelson, Lars & The Real Girl and Blue Valentine. His performance as an inner-city teacher struggling with drug addiction in Half Nelson earned him an Oscar nomination. I was then very much looking forward to his latest film, Drive which is today's flick of the day.
The story such as it is revolves around the unnamed Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic who moonlights as getaway driver for hire. He is the quite taciturn type that might have been played by Steve McQueen back in the 1970's. Before you let your mind wander off there to McQueen's classic car chase filled Bullit and wonder about similarities, let me disabuse you of any such notions immediately. This is not that kind of film. Gosling's Driver works for shifty looking Shannon, a crippled businessman with a heart of gold and an eye for it too, played by the seemingly ubiquitous Bryan Cranston. All is going well and profitably until Driver meets and falls for his new neighbour Irene and her son. Irene is a woman with a husband about to get out of jail, ably played by Carey Mulligan. Of course her husband soon returns and all is not well. For reasons known only to himself and the screenwriter, Driver decides to help out this down on his luck husband by acting as his getaway driver. Inevitably things go awry, and Driver falls awry of local hoods Nino and Bernie played by the always reliable Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. Along the way is a blink and you won't miss her departure cameo by the lovely Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame.
This is where the film begins to go badly awry. It starts well with a great opening sequence, some classic synth tunes and 80's style credits and you could be forgiven for thinking you are in for a treat. It is when Driver begins to get himself in trouble that the film falters. Out of nowhere, the up to this point peaceable Driver becomes mindlessly violent and the director, Nicholas Winding Refn seems to revel in showing it to us in all the gory detail. A head is kicked to a bloody pulp, another explodes in a shotgun blast. Driver is not the only violent man, Bernie played against type by Brooks gets in on the act, with wrists and throats slashed and arterial spray the normal result of almost any confrontation. It is this revelling in the gore which is so misplaced. The director is so focused on showing us the physical effects of the violence that it never shows us any emotion. Think of cinema violence back in the days of the Hays Code when it couldn't be shown directly, yet we still saw its effects and the anguish on a characters face. I have no problem with screen violence for it  represents the world we live in yet I see no point in it being the sole focus of a film to the detriment of the story. Early works from Tarantino such as Reservoir Dogs were violent but it always felt necessary and human. If the slow agonising death of Tim Roth's Mr Orange thought us anything it is that sometimes death is slow and painful but it was never done gratuitously.
Apart from this, its pretty standard B-Movie stuff. The kind of thing you might have caught on a lazy Saturday afternoon back in the day. It is a strikingly shot film with some gorgeous shots of a night time Los Angeles and there is an excellent score to carry the piece through. At times, it was the only thing keeping me interested.

Driver: If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun... I drive.

Gosling carries his role well but he isn't given a whole lot to work with, dialogue wise he says very little over the course of the film and it is to his credit that he manages to convey emotion and mood silently. His relationship with Irene's son is compelling. Overall the cast are excellent, its just not as good  a film as it thinks it is and that's a shame.
My only other criticism would be that for a film which promises so much in terms of its title and smashing trailer, it delivers precious little in terms of car chases or action driving. Oh sure, Driver drives about the city looking stern but we never really see him take on all these getaway jobs.
All in all, this is a slick film with a lot of style from the opening credits to the final shot and Refn is a director with an eye for framing a shot, but there is no real heart here. I left the cinema disappointed but there you go, such is life. Draw your own conclusions.

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