Thursday, September 13, 2012

Short Take: Drive

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Drive is a piece of low-grade schlock that uses an A-list cast and a faux-existential tone to put on airs. Ryan Gosling plays the taciturn man-with-no-name protagonist, a mechanic and stunt man by day, and a freelance getaway driver by night. He’s cold-bloodedly violent when necessary, but he has his gentle side: he takes a shine--platonic, of course--to the young mother (Carey Mulligan) who lives next door, and he becomes something of a surrogate father to her son. He’s nothing less than chivalrous towards them; when her husband (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, he’s calmly accepting. And when the husband is corralled into a robbery to pay off a debt, he offers his driving services for free to get the fellow off the hook. The robbery, of course, goes horribly wrong, and the rest of the movie has the protagonist trying to square the situation while the body count rises. The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, does a sleek job with a pre-title chase sequence, but the rest of his work is largely identical to Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking schtick: shapeless, dead-air scenes of the characters standing around, which are punctuated by moments of grotesque violence. As with Eastwood’s work, the viewer is left too stupefied to recoil from the crude sensationalism. And of course this gets mistaken for an existential atmosphere and proof of the filmmaker’s artistry. (The picture won Refn the Best Director prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.) The staging is so lackadaisical at times it’s almost funny, such as the scene in which Gosling’s character assaults a mobster in a strip club. The dancers just sit there as if nothing’s happening. Gosling and Mulligan, two of the best young actors working, are completely wasted in their stock roles, as are Christina Hendricks as a moll, and Bryan Cranston as the protagonist’s mentor. The only performer of interest is neurotic-comedy master Albert Brooks, who is cast against type. He plays a gangster whose steely, violent ruthlessness rivals the protagonist’s. Brooks is, by turns, a droll and chilling presence. But he is the only fresh aspect of the film. The rest is a collection of exhausted clich├ęs, notable only for the pretentious manner in which they are presented. The screenplay, based on a novel by James Sallis, is credited to Hossein Amini.

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