Friday, September 16, 2011

Drive: A Killer Is Born

Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, started out promisingly, but soon had me worrying that it was just a mainstream, sentimental (getaway driver bonding with the cutely sad son of the lovely girl next door) , possibly even PG-13 version of Walter Hill's superb 1978 minimalist existential noir, The Driver (starring another Ryan--O'Neal, in his prime).  Drive is mainstream, and it is occasionally sentimental, replete with the corniest makes-you-cringe source music that punctuates Big Moments that I've heard in years.  But it gets worse: the movie then fairly abruptly devolves into a slasher film, with our hero ultimately becoming a kind of Michael Myers (Hallowe'en) in his avenging stunt mask.  I couldn't help but think of the Talking Heads song:

You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile (specifically, a Chevy Impala)
You may ask yourself, how did I get here?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?

Ryan Gosling's character goes from benign to brutal in a heartbeat, with no heartache or second act build to make him plausible.  And by the time Albert Brooks's Bernie Rose is wielding utensils in a lethal manner and Gosling is walking around in plain sight in his scorpion jacket soaked with blood (albeit in a Chinese restaurant deep in the Valley on Sherman Way), well...we in the ArcLight Hollywood audience were having a few good laughs.

In Walter Hill's film (written and directed by him), the characters have no names--they are The Driver, The Detective, The Player.  Ryan Gosling also has no name in this film, and Drive, like The Driver, is laconic...but Drive is so self-consciously and painfully laconic that it's like those Hemingway parodies.  Also, as in Hill's film, the characters have little backstory (Hill always posited that behavior is character), but even in this aspect, Drive's screenwriter (Hossein Amini, from a novel by James Sallis) and director (Nicolas Winding Refn)  lose their nerve and insert silly scenes like Irene's (lovely girl next door played by Carey Mulligan--terrific but woefully miscast) husband telling The Story of How We Met and How Irene Got Knocked Up. In comparison, The Driver is elegantly pure.  All the backstory is implicit for the viewer, but clear in Hill's conception.  Hill gave his script readers the essence:

I find it curious that no review I've read so far even mentions the debt that Drive owes to The Driver, although Gosling's character has been compared to Alain Delon's Jef Costello in Melville's Le Samourai (1967), which clearly also influenced Hill.  And I have to say that, even action-wise, Hill's car chases are thrilling and exquisite at the same time--another intrinsic area in which Drive lacks nerve and/or the chops.  Check out the classic demolition scene in The Driver, in which Ryan O'Neal's character auditions for a gig; it's a tough one to top--it's high octane and it tells us everything we need to know about The Driver's character (with kudos to film editors Tina Hirsch & Robert K. Lambert as well):

Alas, we don't even get to see Gosling's perfect "Photoshopped" abs in Drive (I'm amazed to admit that Crazy, Stupid, Love was a a far better movie, perfectly realized).  I never did quite get what the scorpion symbol is about on Gosling's jacket.  And I didn't buy for a minute that Carey Mulligan would be with the no-goodnik (despite his heart of gold) con, especially one named "Standard."  Although it is creepily interesting to watch Albert Brooks wield, and then carefully wash and display, his straight razor.  All while playing it straight....

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